Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media.
In May, Americans learned that under its new seemingly autocratic administration, the subject of an investigation can fire the investigator. One month later, that fired investigator, former FBI head James Comey, appeared before the hearing to describe an executive branch that operates less like a democratic institution and more like a cross between a Mafia shakedown and an audition for The Apprentice. Transparency, checks and balances, and due process have been replaced by secret dinners, loyalty oaths and casual declarations of obstruction of justice.
Fortunately, James Comey took notes.
On Wednesday, Mr. Comey released a copy of his opening statement describing his private meetings with President Donald Trump, culled from memos he wrote immediately after their encounters. They would make a great crime novel, if the crime weren’t the desecration of democracy and we didn’t have to live in it.
According to Thursday’s testimony, Mr. Trump – like a Mafia don – demanded unquestioning loyalty from Mr. Comey. And like a good public servant, Mr. Comey said he could only offer honesty. The President bargained that down to “honest loyalty,” which can be interpreted as a demand that Mr. Comey sacrifice his professional integrity for blind devotion to Mr. Trump. “We had that thing you know,” the President said, a phrase the former FBI director claimed he did not understand but which evokes Cosa Nostra a bit too well.
Then, of course, Mr. Trump fired him.
Since taking office, the President has run the U.S. more and more like a kleptocracy – a predictable move given his shady international ties and the corrupt nature of many of his past business ventures. But while Mr. Trump evokes foreign autocrats, his management style resembles that of an American mafioso. He views NATO as akin to a protection racket, public officials as personal minions, and the GOP as bound to a vow of Omerta. Refuse to comply, like Mr. Comey did, and face consequences.
His hearing was an important alternative to the obfuscation and propaganda of the Trump administration. Unlike most U.S. pundits and politicians, Mr. Comey called a lie a lie. He noted that for the first time in his tenure, he felt obligated to document his meetings with the President because he assumed that the President may be dishonest about their encounter. He said he needed his own records to defend not only himself, but the FBI.
This is a horrifying revelation on several levels. Mr. Comey confirmed that the President could not be trusted to look out for anyone’s interest but his own, and that threats to national sovereignty were of lesser concern to him than whether he and his cronies are implicated. In other words, the person tasked with protecting the American people is a person from whom the American people need to be protected. Mr. Comey strongly affirmed that the U.S. had been attacked by Russia, and gave no indication that in their interactions, Mr. Trump found this situation undesirable.
Mr. Comey kept a diary as democracy was dying – his own job among its casualties. By recording the meetings as they occurred, Mr. Comey’s records are legally admissible, bypassing the hearsay rule. But will his efforts matter? The hearings gave no indication that the GOP is willing to act on the evidence not only of collusion, but of flagrant obstruction of justice.
Republicans who once called for a non-partisan investigation of Russian interference now seem frightened into complicity. Former staunch Kremlin critic Marco Rubio – who had dinner with President Trump a few days ago, seemingly with a side order of a loyalty oath – treated Mr. Comey like a hostile witness. John McCain, who initially led the investigation charge, was barely coherent, confusing Mr. Comey with Mr. Trump and implying Hillary Clinton’s e-mails were somehow behind it all.
Mr. Comey’s firing showed how casually the Trump administration will violate norms, and the President’s open admission that he did so in order to get Mr. Comey off his back showed how casually he will disregard laws. This disregard is based on confidence that there will be no repercussions, and the cowed performance of the GOP makes his assumption seem reasonable. Even if the investigation is carried out, and crimes are confirmed, who will act on the findings?
Likely not Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, who as Mr. Comey noted, participated in his firing despite the fact that he is supposed to have recused himself from an investigation in which he, too, is implicated. The rot of the Trump administration runs deep, and extends beyond the U.S. borders. In a heartbreaking hearing, James Comey pledged allegiance to a version of the United States that is slipping away.
“A republic, if you can keep it,” Ben Franklin famously said. Mr. Comey tried.Report Typo/Error
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