Trump fired Comey on Tuesday
"He's a showboat. He's a grandstander," Trump said
Presidents often get angry, but most go to great lengths to hide their fits of rage and the impression that red faced fury rules their actions.
Not Donald Trump.
In three-and-a-half months in office, the 45th President has shown that indignation, impulsiveness and a prickly desire to protect his own self image are at the core of his governing philosophy.
The latest example of the President’s simmering fury has emerged in the aftermath of his firing of James Comey this week, apparently the culmination of long-brewing animosity towards the FBI director.
Trump gave a glimpse of his irritation and impatience with Comey during an interview with NBC News on Thursday.
“He’s a showboat,” Trump said. “He’s a grandstander.”
But such visceral reactions sometimes get the President into trouble. The sudden dismissal of Comey for example could do more than deal a political blow to the President. It could lead him onto perilous constitutional ground and risks embroiling him in a web of investigations that could lead off in unpredictable directions and dig up all sorts of hidden political or legal baggage.
This would not be the first time Trump has hurt himself politically with his temper.
He’s spent weeks, for example, waging feuds sparked by his own anger – opening his presidency with a showdown over the size of his inauguration crowd, then claiming, apparently furious at the never ending Russia election meddling story, that he was wire-tapped by President Barack Obama.
His daily torrent on Twitter, and at less frequent news conferences and campaign rallies, also reveal his highly emotional response to the merest political slight and thin skin for criticism.
But even though his outbursts hurt him sometimes, there’s a reason he may be reluctant to cool it. Anger has been a potent political weapon to connect with the animosity toward Washington felt by his supporters. He admitted as much during an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett in January 2016.
“I am angry. I am angry, and a lot of other people are angry too about how incompetently out country is being run. I am extremely angry and upset about it and I think its ridiculous,” Trump said.
Trump is not the first President to feel the bile boiling within. Lyndon Johnson’s temper was legendary. Richard Nixon’s stomach-clutching fury about his foes is revealed in the White House taping system that led to his downfall. Bill Clinton’s staff feared his puce-faced rages. And even Barack Obama vented in private when the cameras were off in rants mostly reserved for his staff, like on the occasion when the Healthcare.gov website crashed on its launch day.
But unlike those Presidents, Trump’s emotions and anger form the dominant strain of his political persona. They seem to largely dictate how he conducts his business as president, lashing out at perceived enemies, seemingly without forethought.
The Comey drama suggests serious downsides to such an approach.
It also raises a potentially crucial question that gets to the heart of Trump’s hopes for forging a successful presidency. Could his impetuous and extemporaneous use of his executive power become a fatal flaw and lead him into situations far more serious than the political spats he has battled through so far, and even into legal jeopardy?
Any president has the right to replace an FBI director. But it is the timing and the optics surrounding the Comey dismissal that are troublesome for the White House, since the FBI director was overseeing a probe into whether Trump aides cooperated with a Russian effort to meddle in the US election.
Trump was reportedly also mad that Comey refuted his wiretapping claims in a congressional hearing – though he did some damage control on that issue in his NBC News interview.
“I was surprised he said it but I wasn’t angry,” Trump said.
Comey’s departure raised suspicions that Trump’s decision was motivated not just by deep personal animosity but was an attempt to derail an investigation with the potential to expose deep wrongdoing in his inner circle.
It’s what’s motivating Trump’s anger in this case that will dictate how it turns out.
If Trump did just fire Comey in a fit of pique, he may damage himself politically and foster impressions that his administration is in disarray but he’s unlikely to find himself careening down a dangerous legal slope.
But if Trump’s anger is motivated by some inside knowledge of alleged links between Russia and his campaign team, or the worry that some other wrongdoing could be exposed, that would be another matter.
“If it turns out for example that the presidency had nothing to do with any of that, if it turns out that it was entirely irrelevant and he is firing Comey for political reasons it pretty much dies on the vine,” said Andrew Hall, a lawyer who represented John Ehrlichman, assistant to the President for domestic affairs during the Nixon administration who was caught up in Watergate.
“But if it goes further than that to show that he is trying to protect either himself, or some other member of his team from the disclosure of an event that would be criminal or an huge embarrassment and he goes through illegal acts that would prevent the disclosure, then he is going to get himself into trouble,” Hall said.
So far it’s been almost impossible to judge whether Trump’s is simply acting rashly or with more nefarious forethought since his own administration’s explanations have been laced with confusion and contradictions.
He told Comey for example in his letter or dismissal that he was accepting a recommendation he received on Tuesday from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to let him go because of his handling into the Clinton email investigation.
The next day, the White House said that Trump had actually been thinking of canning Comey ever since he was elected in November.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny and John King reported that the President was “white hot” over Comey, and complained about the FBI chief’s comment that he felt “mildly nauseous” that his comments about Clinton may have swayed the election.
Trump also thought that the FBI boss did not take leak investigations seriously enough and thought he was his “own man” who could spell trouble being so close to the presidency, CNN reported.
Then on Thursday, Trump came up with his own motive for canning Comey complaining about his “showboat” persona.
The various accounts certainly fog the issue politically and make it difficult to understand exactly what the President’s intentions were.
But they may also inadvertently be providing Trump with a legal shield.
“The more plausible, benign reasons and motivations you may have to do a firing of an otherwise at-will employee actually can undermine a prosecutor’s case in a criminal obstruction charge,” CNN legal analyst Laura Coates said on “Newsroom” Thursday.
“If there were these non partisan, nonpolitical reasons and motivations, even if they are contradictory, and even if they cannot toe the line of a consistent story, they undermine it criminally,” Coates said.
Still, Trump may also want to consider that even if his motives are not sinister, the White House’s behavior in the Comey affair invites suspicion and investigation.
That’s where administrations can get drawn into tampering or thwarting inquiries and trying to prevent truths coming out and eventually get stuck in the legal mud. After all it was not the burglary at the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate that caused Nixon’s downfall, but the efforts he and his team took to cover it up.
In that sense, there may be a smart political case for Trump to keep his anger in check and to lay low for a while – even though such a move would contradict almost every one of his personal and political reflexes.
“A sophisticated political player would know that the smartest thing to do when the storm is brewing is batten down the hatches so to speak … let the storm pass under its own terms and you don’t basically expose yourself in the storm to what ever uncertainties there are,” said Hall, of Hall, Lamb, Hall & Leto.
“There is a whole lot of downside risk. That’s the lessons of 1973 and 1974 and 1975 – these things evolve a life of their own and your conduct really is like anger and revenge – served hot they are very dangerous, served cold they are different,” he said.