The firing of FBI Director James Comey has all the markings of a cover-up. There’s the rationale—Comey’s handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton—which reads like a pretext in light of President Trump’s prior praise for Comey’s actions during the presidential election. Trump and key allies celebrated the now-former director’s infamous letter to Congress on the eve of the election. There’s the evidence, reported in the wake of Comey’s dismissal, that Trump had settled on the firing last week and was simply waiting on a reason, which was eventually provided by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein. There’s Trump’s own behavior, revealed in a behind-the-scenes look at his decision from Politico: Trump had grown “enraged” by the FBI’s investigation of contacts between Russia and his campaign, he “repeatedly asked why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear,” and he was angry that Comey wouldn’t “support his claims that President Barack Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower.”
Then there’s the simple fact that firing Comey removes the key figure behind the Russia investigation, which as of Tuesday had already led to grand jury subpoenas for associates of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Trump has the right, as president, to remove his FBI director, but to do so in the midst of a consequential inquiry into his own inner circle—just days after Comey requested more resources for that investigation—is to violate every norm and expectation we have of White House conduct.
If anything in recent American history bears comparison to the Watergate scandal, it’s this. If anything demands congressional action, it’s this. But congressional action depends on the Republican Party, which holds majorities in both chambers of Congress. And with few exceptions, Republicans are uninterested in challenging Trump’s actions. The GOP has all but abdicated its role as a check on executive power and a defender of constitutional government and seems indifferent to this latest—and most serious—assault on the integrity of our democracy. Which raises an unsettling question: Is there anything Trump could do to spark rebellion from the Republican Party? Any action that breaks the thrall of partisanship?
The exceptions, so far, to GOP indifference are Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, all of whom voiced their concern with Comey’s removal. “I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Jim Comey’s termination,” said Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a statement. Similarly, said Sasse, “Regardless of how you think Director Comey handled the unprecedented complexities of the 2016 election cycle, the timing of this firing is very troubling.”
Most Republicans, however, are supportive of the president and unbothered by the firing. “I was surprised,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “But it’s a decision the president has made, and we’ll go from there.” For South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has been a critic of Trump and a supporter of the Russia inquiry, Comey’s firing is an opportunity. “I know this was a difficult decision for all concerned,” Graham said. “Given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well.” The No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn of Texas, offered a similar view. “I hope the president can find somebody who can be a strong independent leader for the department,” Cornyn told reporters. “It’s really important for the country.”
On Wednesday morning, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor to support the president’s decision and dismiss talk of a special committee or independent prosecutor. “Today we’ll no doubt hear calls for a new investigation,” said McConnell, “which can only serve to impede the current work being done.”
Democrats, unsurprisingly, have gone the opposite direction, blasting Comey’s firing as a dangerous precedent. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer demanded a closed (“and if necessary, classified”) briefing with the attorney general and the deputy attorney general, ending his remarks with a challenge to McConnell. “I remind him and my Republican friends that nothing less is at stake than the American people’s faith in our criminal justice system and the integrity of the executive branch of our government.”
Schumer is right. To do nothing in the face of Trump’s actions is to allow the president to interfere with an investigation into his own conduct. It makes a mockery of any separation between the White House and law enforcement and opens the door to outright partisan corruption of the FBI. After all, Trump will now need to nominate a replacement for Comey, and given his obsession with loyalty, the odds of him choosing an independent and nonpartisan nominee are low. And even if he did—even if Trump were to find the most honorable person in Washington—it’s still true that the next FBI director will work knowing his predecessor was fired for investigating the president. A “fresh start,” to say nothing of genuine independence, is impossible.
There’s a path forward for Republicans and Democrats—a special committee with all the resources it needs to find the truth. But it’s hard to believe that the Republican Party will do anything to check the conduct of the Trump administration. And indeed, much of conservative Washington has already closed ranks behind the president. Which isn’t a surprise. The story of Donald Trump and his rise to power is also the story of the GOP and its complete acquiescence to his misbehavior and misconduct. Whether it’s his bragging about sexual assault, his petty graft, or his outright lying about the previous president’s actions (the alleged Obama “wiretap”), Republicans have looked the other way, even running interference when faced with clear evidence that he has compromised the national security of the United States. And now, after Trump has taken open steps to derail an investigation into his campaign, they’re doing the same.
The modern Republican Party—the party shaped by Newt Gingrich and his “revolution”—is defined less by its conservatism than its radicalism and its will to power. At every turn, when faced with the choice between norms and power, between the integrity of our institutions and partisan victory, Republicans from Gingrich and Tom DeLay to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have chosen the latter. It’s how brinkmanship became the order of the day under President Obama and why few, if any, Republicans have spoken out against the push for voter suppression in the states. It’s what drove the party establishment to consolidate behind Donald Trump, an unstable demagogue whose chief qualification is his physical ability to sign conservative legislation, and it’s behind the present choice—in the face of unprecedented behavior and a possible cover-up of unethical (even criminal) activity—to move against accountability.
What will pull the GOP away from Trump? Nothing, it seems. At a time in which the president himself tests the strength of our democracy, we know what the Republican Party stands for: party over country, power over everything.