If there is anything Trump relishes, it’s going to war against his detractors.
There is something a little odd about the transformation of James Comey, the former FBI director, into the darling of liberal elites. He was treated as a conquering hero by Democrats today for his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. But only yesterday, it seems, Comey was reviled as a fink by Democrats for allegedly having handed the election to Trump by declaring that Hillary Clinton was under investigation for her email shenanigans. It’s a vertiginous world, friends. As the New York Times’ Peter Baker tweeted: “Appalling. Disturbing. Partisan. That’s how Democrats used to describe Comey. Now they embrace him.”
There is nothing that Washington loves more than a good scandal, and Comey, ever the good Boy Scout, played his role well. He was understated, poised and even self-effacing, acknowledging that he wasn’t, as he put it, “Captain Courageous.” Hmm. It’s a little peculiar that the head of the FBI, someone charged with taking down the nation’s greatest criminals, would testify that he lacked the intestinal fortitude to speak up, but there you go.
Almost singlehandedly, Comey transformed the entire focus of the Senate Intelligence Committee from collusion to obstruction of justice. The ostensible purpose of the investigations has, through a combination of Trump’s bungling in firing Comey and the eagerness of Democrats to head down the path of impeachment, moved from the former to the latter. Comey confirmed that he had told Trump three times that he was not personally under investigation, but he trained his guns on Trump, announcing that the White House had engaged in defamation of him and the FBI. He became a latter-day Boswell to Trump, recording his utterances and suggestions. Sen. Susan Collins asked Comey why he had started taking notes after his first meeting with Trump; Comey replied that it was a “gut” feeling.
But what specifically prompted Comey to go down this road? If Washington turns into a city of Boswells, there will be true gridlock in government, as no one will be able to trust anyone else about a private conversation. For all the consternation yesterday about Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and others refusing to answer publicly questions about their conversations, any president has to have some expectation of privacy in speaking with his top officials. Meanwhile, the prospect that Trump is—or was—taping his conversations with his interlocutors was welcomed by Comey as possible proof of his own veracity: “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
For their part, congressional Republicans were rather muted in trying to defend Trump. House Speaker Paul Ryan commented, “The president’s new at this. He’s new at government. He’s not steeped in the long running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI and White Houses.” This is the president-on-training-wheels theory of government, but it doesn’t carry much conviction, let alone persuasive power. Another tack is to say that Trump’s “let this go” was, as New Jersey governor Chris Christie put it, not tantamount to an order, but this kind of verbal parsing got Bill Clinton into trouble and is not a very effective device.
It’s always a tricky matter to go to bat for Trump, as Republicans have learned, because he may unilaterally shift his explanation for an event from one day to the next. Rather than focusing on Trump, Republicans might be advised to look at questions such as why Comey signed off on a FISA request on Carter Page that included the Christopher Steele dossier, which the intelligence services had been treating as a hot potato. Did Comey actually think the dossier was valid? Or was he spinning the evidence?
So far, Trump himself has not commented upon Comey’s testimony. Not even tweets. The commentariat must be in withdrawal. Trump’s tweets have become a kind of narcotic for the journalist class—a quick fix. If Trump were actually impeached and ousted from office, what on earth would journalists have to write about? What Trump did say today was that his administration is “under siege” before the Faith & Freedom Coalition, which was founded by Ralph Reed. But he predicted triumph: “If we had a plan that gave you the greatest health care ever in history, you wouldn’t get one Democrat vote because they are obstructionists. They are bad right now for the country. They have gone so far left that I don’t know if they can ever come back.”
Is Trump right? Thomas B. Edsall, writing in the New York Times, has a column that should give Democrats a case of the vapors. Trump’s approval ratings may be sagging—the new Quinnipiac poll has him at a daunting 34 percent—but the news for the Democrats is not cheery. Edsall’s thesis: “The Democratic Party is in worse shape than you thought.” Turnout among African American voters plummeted by 7 percent from 2012 to 2016. Edsall surveys a mass of data and articles to conclude, “What the autopsy reveals is that Democratic losses among working class voters were not limited to whites; that crucial constituencies within the party see its leaders as alien; and that unity over economic populism may not be able to turn back the conservative tide.”
This suggests that Trump’s hand is not as weak as his adversaries would like to suggest. The rumbustious Trump may even welcome the chance to battle his political enemies over Russia rather than focusing on his domestic agenda. If there is anything Trump relishes, it’s going to war against his detractors.
Don’t count Trump out.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.
Image: President Donald J. Trump announces his infrastructure initiative. Flickr/The White House