Like Trump’s own election, James Comey’s dismissal from the FBI was jarring in the same way as your favorite movie plot twist. It was unexpected yet retrospectively inevitable. “How did this happen?” gives way pretty quickly, in a time as crazy as this, to “How did I not see this coming?” It’s important to look to the past, to gather all the clues as to why this happened now, and it’s necessary to take bearings of where we’re at in the present. But, just as the initial jolt of the election results pales in comparison to what’s been happening since Jan. 20, the worst is yet to come.
For all Comey’s mucking about with Hillary Clinton, the truth is that they’re very similar figures. Both are career public servants with—at best—muddied records, and now both have gained martyrdom status thanks to the personification of grimy sludge itself: Donald J. Trump. Despite being far below the bar of what the public wants out of them, they remained respectable for the reason there were even more incompetent, craven and/or blatantly amoral people who wanted their jobs. As pessimistic and hopeless as the dichotomy is, it’s better to be disappointed and disgruntled with our leadership than damaged beyond recognition by them.
If you want Comey in a nutshell, look no further than his endorsement of waterboarding and sleep deprivation—but only if they’re used separately—while he was Bush II’s Deputy Attorney General. Or that he both fought against the NSA increasing surveillance on US citizens during the Bush years and wanted Apple to install a back door for law enforcement in their devices as FBI Director.
In other words, his most laudable moments are pretty pathetic to behold, uprooted as they are by hypocrisy, incompetent bumbling or taking slightly less immoral stances than the most immoral ones. It says a lot about the state of American justice that a man whose defining ethical standpoint was lobbying for “just one kind of torture at a time, thank you very much” will probably be replaced by someone who wants all of them and more at once.
Let’s face it: the Trump administration wants all its law-enforcement arms to look and act the exact same way. Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a letter requesting Comey’s dismissal, as did his Deputy Rod Rosenstein. Reports are circulating the story that Trump asked Sessions to come up with some reason to fire Comey last week, but the Attorney General already made those motives public in the past. His replacement will probably be someone a lot like Sessions, and that’s terrifying.
For one thing, it means the Trump-Russia investigation, at least in its current iteration, is probably heading the way of the dodo bird. Trump’s guaranteed himself a win-win with this decision, if that was his goal. He can either leave the FBI without a director or attempt to replace Comey with someone more friendly to him and his agenda; either way, he’s off the hot seat. As long as Comey was at the FBI, there was the chance he might deliver information so damning that even the Trumpist DOJ would have to act on it. That likelihood has been drastically decreased now that there will be either no director or a patsy in his stead.
But even leaving the possibility of this being a Nixonian cover-up aside, it’s still ominous. Although he’s backed off this line since assuming the presidency, it’s concerning that the man who ran a campaign based in part on sending Hillary Clinton to prison will now be appointing someone to head up the main investigative body in America. The FBI has always tended towards at least some degree of political weaponization, but it’s due to take on even more of that mantle now.
For a person as vindictive, paranoid and frivolous as Trump in the Oval Office, and someone as resolute and unrelenting as Sessions in the Department of Justice, a dedicatedly sympathetic FBI Director would be a dream come true. With the Trump-Russia investigation out of the way, maximum coordination would be possible amidst all criminal justice bodies. Trump’s also due to reshape the federal judiciary by appointing even more Supreme Court Justices and over a hundred federal judges over his term. American law and order will be shaped by a decisively Trumpian ideology for years to come.
If Trump’s “Make America Great Again” nostalgia is meant to point primarily toward the post-WWII to pre-Vietnam era of his youth, the irony just keeps growing: this was, of course, when noted power-abuser J. Edgar Hoover reigned over the FBI. Take a look at what Harry S. Truman once said about the guy,
“[W]e want no Gestapo or secret police. The FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail. J. Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all congressmen and senators are afraid of him.”
Of course, Hoover could only dream of the power his successor will now have in the Trump administration. For one thing, there’s more latitude to surveil both the public and political enemies than ever before in history. This is especially frightening given Trump came to power appealing toward some citizens’ animosity toward Muslims, the political establishment, undocumented immigrants, Black Lives Matter and so on. If he uses the FBI as a political weapon, he’ll be applauded by his base.
And the FBI’s only grown in stature and corruption in recent years. Documents obtained by The Intercept in early January show just how big the iron glove will be for Trump’s new Director. The abuses of power were already rampant and they’re due to get even worse.
James Comey was easy to hate but he’s gonna look like a saint once the new boss rolls in. He did, after all, require his new agents to visit the Martin Luther King Memorial to remind themselves of the FBI’s propensity to do harm. It’s something of an empty gesture—given his own deviations into harmful territory—but the Trump administration sure has a way of making these sorts of empty gestures seem like the most meaningful thing in the world. Comey may not have been a hero in any sense of the word, but he’ll start to look like one when he’s replaced by an outright villain.