The high stakes of the Comey controversy

Story highlights

  • Trump fired Comey on Tuesday
  • He tweeted about "tapes" on Friday

Washington (CNN)President Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey has uncoiled a whole administration's worth of shocks, contradictions and blockbuster moments.

Those shocks will continue to reverberate next week and beyond because the issues involved are fundamental to American democracy, challenging the credibility of the White House and the vital legal institutions that sustain government.
As always in politics, timing is everything, and the timing here raises questions about the use and possible abuse of presidential power: Why did Trump do it? And more importantly, why now?
    Orchestrating the chaos, as always, was Trump himself, who largely stayed out of public view last week but managed to incite pandemonium nonetheless.
    In a dizzying sequence of events, sacked acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned in Senate testimony Monday that ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn was a ripe blackmail target for Russia while in office. The President suddenly fired FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday, and then blindsided his own vice president with his shifting reasoning before sabotaging the White House press operation that was trying to defend him. Amid reports he demanded a loyalty pledge from Comey, critics warned Trump was guilty of a grotesque abuse of power, or even worse. But the President was not done. He suggested that Comey's investigation into links between his presidential campaign and Russia were indeed the reason he was fired.
    In a Friday morning tweetstorm, he seemed to suggest he had a Nixon-style White House taping operation, and told Comey to stay mum. Next, he proposed ending press briefings because it's impossible for his communications team to keep up with the whiplash of his stream-of-consciousness presidency.
    Trump's behavior provoked confusion and criticism in Washington. But the President is defiant and may have had his detractors in mind as he delivered a commencement address Saturday at Liberty University, in Virginia.
    "No one has ever achieved anything significant without a chorus of critics standing on the sideline saying why it can't be done," Trump said. "Nothing is easier or more pathetic than being a critic."
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    View from afar

    Meanwhile, out in the country, the political contagion is spreading.
    In North Dakota, tempers boiled over at a town hall event hosted by Rep. Kevin Cramer. A man demanded to know whether the rich would benefit from the repeal of Obamacare and was escorted out by police after trying to shove a wad of cash into Cramer's collar.
    Republican Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan was shouted down by constituents shouting "health care for all."
    GOP Rep. Tom MacArthur, who helped pass the Obamacare repeal bill, walked into a metaphorical bear pit in his New Jersey district. "Open your eyes!" screamed one anti-Trump voter.
    In West Virginia, a reporter was arrested after firing a string of questions at Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
    At times, in Washington and elsewhere, it seemed as thought the country's political equilibrium was at grave risk. It's now normal to observe that Trump is not like a conventional politician, that the point of his political project is to flout norms and shake up the cozy establishment and that the press takes him too literally.
    And when Trump behaves in a way that has the media and Washington establishment types running around with their hair on fire, his loyal base of voters who sent him to the White House see a mission accomplished.
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    Loyalty

    There's also no sign that congressional leaders are ready to desert him. House Speaker Paul Ryan, for instance, said Friday: "I've decided I'm not going to comment on the tweets of the day or the hour." 
    Trump went back to his seemingly impervious well of political support Friday, in a fundraising drive emailed to supporters in which he said : "Let's show the hypocrites, liars, and 'elites' of Washington that the American people are dead serious about our mission to DRAIN THE SWAMP."
    But despite the loyalty of his base and for all the cacophony of the last three months, and the riotous campaign in 2016, the last week has seemed different. It felt at times that the White House was spinning off its political axis, that the President was isolated even from his own staff and that there was little rhyme or reason behind his increasingly erratic statements.
    Trump's often frazzled but loyal press secretary Sean Spicer was even asked in his daily briefing on Friday whether Trump was "out of control."
    "That's, frankly, offensive," Spicer said.
    Yet, so extreme have been the events of the last few days that such a question -- which many would view as outrageous in more normal times -- didn't seem out of bounds.
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    Wild ride

    While Trump has taken America on a wild ride since taking office, things did appear to get substantially more surreal and serious this week, with the possibility even looming that the President had edged closer to legal jeopardy with his stunning decision to can Comey while he was overseeing the Russia probe.
    Spicer's stand-in, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, meanwhile, made a series of statements about Comey's popularity within the bureau and the scope of the FBI investigation that were comprehensively refuted by acting FBI chief Andrew McCabe in congressional testimony on Thursday.
    Some Republicans are worried about the trajectory of Trump's presidency amid concern that a distracted White House could squander its opportunity to use a GOP majority to reshape the country's politics.
    "This is ridiculous, it is not tenable and Republicans ... just politically, this cannot last, so go ahead and start holding the President accountable, the bogeyman is not going to come out from under your bed," Amanda Carpenter, a former communications aide to Sen. Ted Cruz said on "Anderson Cooper 360" on Friday. "Donald Trump's special police are not going to come get you in the middle of the night."
    "If you say, 'Mr. President, please respect the three branches of government. Please respect the American institution as it's supposed to work' ... you will be much better off," said Carpenter, a CNN commentator.
    But beyond the politics, there's another element to the Trump presidency that makes it so discombobulating for many people.
    Thanks to the President's mastery of social media, it's hard to escape him. He sometimes seems to be lurking on every device, from your iPhone to your laptop to your television, and thus barges into countless conversations or social occasion. If nothing else, by the end of his presidency, America may face the political equivalent post traumatic stress disorder. And the societal damage from Trump's perpetual war on institutions like the intelligence agencies, the courts and the media might take may years to assess.
    In that sense, Friday's tweet storm blasting Comey and the "fake media" was just the capstone of a madcap week.
    Timothy Naftali, a CNN historian and former director of the Nixon Library, suggested that the President would do well to reconsider his approach.
    "I believe the President of the United States needs to think about his credibility," Naftali told CNN's Kate Bolduan, referring to Trump's response to the investigation into alleged Russian election meddling. Though there was no evidence he was guilty of anything, Trump is acting like he is, Naftali said.
    "This is bigger than him, he is our head of state, he is our bald eagle, he represents our country. Perhaps there might be a time for a little bit of a moment and little reflection ... perhaps he might want to think about his conduct more seriously than he has up to now," he said.
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    Credibility

    But it is not just Trump whose credibility seemed tarnished after his week. The reputation of his press shop has also taken a hit.
    The suddenness of Comey's firing took the White House communications team by surprise, but they quickly built a rationale that the reason Comey was gone was a damning report on his handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe complied by the new deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.
    It didn't seem remotely credible, but at least it was something. Within hours the tale was unraveling, but not before Vice President Mike Pence had put his own reputation on the line by peddling it to reporters on Capitol Hill.
    Even though White House aides insisted repeatedly the firing had nothing to do with Russia, they were finally and disastrously undermined by their own boss.
    "In fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won,'" Trump told NBC in an interview.
    His comments made an already dicey job for Spicer's team all but impossible.
    "I think the credibility is gone, and I'm really sorry to say that," said John Kirby, a former State Department and Pentagon spokesman who is now a CNN analyst.
    "I don't think there is a crisis of credibility, I think it is shot, and I don't know how they ever get it back," Kirby said.
    Some Republicans are meanwhile worried that the trust that has eroded in a fraught political time for the White House will leave the administration flailing when an inevitable international or national crisis flares.
    "Having the President undermine the credibility of his staff makes their jobs harder not just today but moving forward," said Republican strategist Doug Heye on CNN.
    "This White House has had a lot of crises but not a real true crisis yet. When that crisis hits, Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, they need credibility in front of those reporters who are going to be gunning after them and the President hurt them today. That is a real challenge for this White House."