Just when you thought that Donald Trump had lost his ability to stun Washington and the American public, he struck again, this time firing FBI director James Comey amid probes into the Trump entourage's connections with Russia. The action prompted shock, outrage – and multiple questions.
Those questions multiplied as the hours passed Tuesday evening and into Wednesday, for in one swift, awkwardly explained decision, Mr. Trump transformed the American political landscape, altered the customary alliances and assumptions of the capital, and set in motion furies and forces that are unpredictable. Here are some of the principal questions that the dismissal of Mr. Comey prompts:
Why did Donald Trump do this?
The surface explanation involves Mr. Comey's comportment during the 2016 election campaign, when he discounted questions about Democratic contender Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server, raised them again and finally dismissed them right before the election. The Trump administration argued this week that Mr. Comey mishandled the Clinton investigation, a contention that Democrats have been making for months but one that collided with Mr. Trump's own comments a week earlier, when he tweeted that Mr. Comey was "the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!"
Many Republicans close to the administration embraced the Trump explanation for Mr. Comey's firing but Democrats were quick to call it a smokescreen – or to argue that there was even more smoke to this episode, smoke that inevitably would lead to fire in the Russia investigation. Some Republicans were skeptical of the administration's rationale as well. This, however, is incontrovertible: No decision about Mr. Comey's future could possibly have been made in a sanitized atmosphere where the Russia probe was not present, and possibly was made in a political environment where it was the principal factor.
What happens to that Russia investigation?
It continues on Capitol Hill, of course. All of the principals and principles of that investigation remain intact, and perhaps even are reinforced by this development. The course of the FBI probe, however, is less certain. Until Mr. Trump selects a successor to Mr. Comey – and that choice will spur a fierce political battle in the Senate, which must confirm the new nominee – the probe will be overseen nominally by the current FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe.
Mr. Comey wanted more personnel and resources to devote to his examination of the Russia ties, and the White House obviously wanted fewer of each. That conflict was a sidebar until Tuesday, and now is a centrepiece of the Washington conversation – which suddenly has a new element, supported by Democrats and perhaps by some Republicans: an independent investigator.
What is the political fallout?
Not as predictable as other episodes even in Mr. Trump's Washington, where the art of prediction has been debased if not discredited completely. It was no surprise to learn that Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who is the chamber's minority leader, expressed fury at the firing of Mr. Comey. Nor was it much of a surprise to learn of the disapproval of Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate committee examining the Russia ties. Democrats generally fell in line in expressing indignation.
But the reaction of Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, whose close ties to the Trump team date back to the campaign months, was telling. In separate tweets, he said that Mr. Comey had "been more forthcoming with information than any FBI director I can recall in my tenure on the congressional intel committees" and he said he was "troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey's termination." Mr. Warner and Mr. Burr have made a point of working together in a bipartisan way as the Russia investigation moved forward. Their unity on the matter of Mr. Comey's firing is a dangerous early sign for those who hope the issue will evaporate with the residue of the spring rains.
What does this mean for the Trump agenda?
This episode provides a distraction from the domestic work at hand, the difficult task of sculpting a tax overhaul that meets the guidelines Mr. Trump outlined late last month and that conforms to the conflicting priorities of Republican conservatives and Democratic liberals. Moreover, it overshadows the even bigger challenge the Senate faces in moulding an overhaul of the health-care system that reconciles the general principles of the House bill with the qualms of Senate lawmakers worried about, among other issues, providing affordable insurance to the millions of Americans with pre-existing health conditions.
Mr. Trump depends on Republican unity at some junctures – his health-care plan passed the House last week without a single vote from Democrats – but he almost certainly will depend on Democrats as he moves forward with other initiatives, especially his ambitious infrastructure plan. This week's Comey development instantly tested Republican unity and has mobilized Democrats, already incensed by the tactics Republicans used to win the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and inflamed by what they regard as injustices in the Trump health-care bill.
Mostly this goes to the question of White House political sensitivity. Surely administration officials calculated that the firing of Mr. Comey – whom Ms. Clinton identified only last month as the reason she lost the 2016 election – would not discomfit Democrats. That didn't happen. And they surely calculated that the reaction from Republicans would be one of modulation if not quiet approbation. That doesn't appear to be the case, at least with some Republicans. This misreading of the Washington political environment that in ordinary times the President largely controls is a blow to White House credibility.
Have we seen this movie before?
Some outtakes, sure, but this is a different film being shown in a different theatre. The conflict between finding leaks and finding information, for example, is a feature both of the Russia examination and the Watergate scandal. So, too, is a dramatic, out-of-the-blue firing of a top legal investigator, raising comparisons with the "Saturday Night Massacre," when in October, 1973, President Richard Nixon dismissed special prosecutor Archibald Cox, a move that led to a domino-like series of resignations in the Justice Department that confirmed Watergate as a grave constitutional crisis.
But Watergate was a complicated affair, with many scandals intertwined, and comparisons (and attachments of the "-gate" suffix) often are facile, too easily made.
Its effectiveness as a metaphor is waning as well. Kamala Harris, the California Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, celebrated her ninth birthday the very day Mr. Nixon fired Mr. Cox. Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican on the committee, was born three years after the Nixon resignation in August, 1974. Mr. Comey is gone and the Watergate comparisons should be as well. The atmospherics and surface comparisons aside, this episode – rooted in events before Mr. Trump became President, involving a foreign nation, and perhaps shifting the contours of an election – is a different matter entirely.