James Comey is a good lawyer. He was a good judge. Everyone says so, so it must be true. But he’s a lousy politician, and he grew too big for his britches. He forgot who he was, and paid dearly.
He’s a lot like the man who sacked him. Both Judge Comey and President Trump sometimes think they know more than they actually do, and both need someone close at hand, a daughter or a wife, to tell them not to say and do foolish things. Above all, both of them talk too much. One of them even tweets too much.
They both think the other is nuts. Mr. Comey, according to The Hill, the Capitol Hill political daily, told colleagues as early as March, two months into the Trump presidency, that the president was “crazy” for suggesting that Barack Obama had wiretapped him in the waning days of the Obama era. Actually, Mr. Trump had never used the word “wiretap,” but the word has been used so often in the media that he might as well have. There’s lots of fake facts floating around Washington.
Then, according to The New York Times, he told associates that the president was acting “outside the realm of normal.” For his part, the president told his aides that “something was wrong with Comey” two days before he sacked him. But everybody in town is a little bit crazy, or no one would survive.
Judge Comey made the miscalculation that he knows more about how politics works than he actually does. Lawyers sometimes do that. The law is precise, logical and consistent. Politics, particularly big-league politics, is vague, illogical and inconsistent, and always fuzzy at the margins.
Mr. Comey, according to The Hill, boasted to his friends that he was fireproof. The president couldn’t fire him because if he did it would call into question how Mr. Comey handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. Treating his exoneration of Hillary as “wrong” would call into question Mr. Trump’s election. How anyone, even a distinguished Harvard lawyer, could have come to this conclusion, he could not say.
The president, whether operating “outside the realm of normal” or not, said Mr. Comey had assured him not once, not twice, but three times that he was not a target of the FBI investigation into whether the Trump campaign had colluded with the Russians to queer the election. The president publicly thanked him, whether for the exoneration or for giving him a bigger part in the bizarre unfolding story, he did not say.
Bizarre or not, it was further evidence that everything about this president, together with all his critics and defenders, falls “outside the realm of normal.” He has driven his critics, normally thoughtful or at least mindful, to the point of madness because nothing has pierced the armor of bluff and bombast that surrounds him.
Washington still thinks in “the normal,” crafted over the decades. The normal way of playing politics was the way of the famous (or infamous, depending on where you’re sitting) Earl Long, Huey’s little brother, twice the governor of Louisiana, where nobody has ever died of politics shock.
“Don’t write anything you can phone,” the Earl of the piney woods described the way he practiced the dark arts of politics. “Don’t phone anything you can talk. Don’t talk anything you can whisper. Don’t whisper anything you can nod. Don’t nod anything you can shrug, and don’t shrug anything you can wink.”
It worked for the Earl, but the Donald has turned political wisdom, conventional and otherwise, on its pointed head. The king of the indiscreet tweet makes the unconventional the new conventional. The day after he fired Judge Comey, with all the media magpies saying it was all about Judge Comey and the FBI closing in on the colluders, the president invited the visiting Russian foreign minister to the White House for an old chinwag. Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? The president, to the fury of the haters, does not act like a man frightened of the future.
The conventional wisdom now demands that the president appoint a new director of the FBI at once, and make sure that the investigation into the Russians proceeds apace. Maybe he will. But he will do it in his own sweet time.
Donald Trump is sui generis, one of a kind, and the chattering class will come to terms with his way of being the president of the United States, like it or not. The chattering class dreamed of resistance, insurrection and restoration, and now the dream that will not die is about something darker and far more sinister. The betting here is that that won’t work, either.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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