I Still Suits Me
— song, from Show Boat
Throughout the past few months, your correspondent has been asked, across restaurant tables in London, Paris, Berlin, the South of France and Northcote, your correspondent has been asked the following question: are the current troubles of the Trump administration in any way reminiscent of Watergate? The question is asked in hope, of course, sometimes with a tone of desperate need, a legacy of the desperate desire to believe that the presidency of Donald Trump is, after all, merely a bad dream. The desire that Trump might be impeached and then convicted in the Senate, and removed from office* is ill-thought out, of course. Even if it succeeded it would simply make the way for the presidency of Mike Pence, a hard-working, focused, free-market evangelical Christian social conservative who knows US government backwards, and would, working smoothly with the congressional Republican leadership, pump-prime the rust-belt states just enough to win a second term.
Much of the desire for a Trump impeachment and removal is an aspect of class war, a desire to show Trump’s supporters that the elites remain, after all, in charge. So it has seemed there is a degree of magical thinking about “the Watergate option”. After all, the signal fact about Watergate is that Nixon’s removal was made possible by the fact that every conversation Nixon had as president was being taped by Nixon himself; that in the pursuit of creating a fully documented “historic” presidency, Nixon had determined to have the most documented one, with a system of voice-activated reel-to-reel tapes installed in secret panels in his desk.
When the existence of the tapes were discovered, they were subpoenaed, and Nixon sacked both the special prosecutor and the attorney-general who refused to sack the special prosecutor. The point is that, Nixon having created a maximally documented presidency, not only has no one else done that since, they have done the exact opposite: create presidencies in which there is no paper/tape/data trail whatsoever. The lesson of Watergate has been learnt in such a way that makes new Watergates — even in this multiply recorded age — vastly harder to achieve. So I have been sceptical about the Trump/Watergate comparison.
Now? Hmmmmmmmmmm. Donald Trump sacked the head of the FBI, James Comey, so abruptly that the sacking came up on TV screens behind Comey while he was giving a speech, just before someone passed him a note saying “you have been terminated”. Comey had appeared before a Senate committee the week before to explain his actions before the election in announcing that the FBI had reopened the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Comey’s argument was that, having announced the investigation had been closed, he had no choice but to announce its reopening. He noted there were no good choices and that he felt “nauseous” at the thought that his actions may have influenced the election.
But of course Comey and the FBI have also been investigating links between the Trump campaign team and the Russian government, and Clinton’s email server is now irrelevant and old news. Sacking a senior law officer, well, that is getting closer to smoking gun territory.
Comey was ostensibly sacked by Trump on advice from Attorney-General Jeff Sessions that the FBI needed “a fresh start” and that Comey had lost the support of the FBI rank-and-file. But this was requested advice, and the belief is that those around Trump — his Breitbart/Manafort cohort — are now petrified that the FBI is getting closer to finding live links between the Russian inner state and the Trump campaign. Trump noted in his letter sacking Comey that Comey had “three times” assured him (Trump) that he was not under investigation. This has been exposed as false by multiple White House links; no such assurance was given.
However, an alternative theory of the sacking is that Trump has ordered it not out of anything to do with Russian links by the Republicans, but due to Comey’s giving Hillary Clinton a free pass. According to this engineered result, Comey — a lifelong Republican — had been remiss in announcing an end to an investigation into Hillary’s emails in July 2016, when such should have been a decision of the Department of Justice. Since the DOJ was led by fierce Dem loyalist Loretta Lynch, the reasoning would appear to be shaky at best. Further rumours abound that Trump was so furious with Comey that he simply ordered he be sacked, four months after taking office.
The sacking has, of course, been characterised by the simple and total detachment of word from reality. Trump had praised Comey’s handling of the Clinton emails case before; the Democrats had praised then cursed Comey.
Much of the case simply and obviously stinks, of course. Comey was sacked days after requesting from Attorney-General Jeff Sessions additional resources to pursue the investigation into the Trump campaign-Russia links. Sessions himself has already been exposed as having lied about links and meetings with Russian government officials. Now, 20 states attorneys-general have called for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the sacking and other matters, and Comey has been invited to appear before the Senate Investigations Committee.
Trump, helpful as ever, responded to these new developments late yesterday afternoon (US time), via Twitter:
He has also described Comey as a “showboat”, taking the whole event back to its Apprentice roots. Trump, it should be noted, is fully within his legal rights to sack an FBI director, with no justification required. But it’s a big big step in the de facto power relations in the US. The FBI, CIA and other such groups were established long after the constitution was drafted, and they occupy no stable place in the separation of powers, hanging somewhere between executive and judiciary. J. Edgar Hoover held power from the end of World War I to the Vietnam War by the simple expedience of having dirt on every president and party who came long.
The only other FBI director to have been sacked was William Sessions (no relation to Jeff), sacked by Bill Clinton in 1993 for tax evasion and mortgage favours, on the basis of an investigation commissioned under George H.W. Bush. The two situations don’t remotely compare.
So where to now? Me, I’m off to Venice, for the Biennale. Oh, I see what you mean. Well, who knows. Five Republican senators, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are now in favour of full Senate investigations. Added to the Democrats, that is getting close to a filibuster-busting majority on the side of an investigation, which would give it strong powers to compel testimony. That is starting to look like Watergatish. My suspicion is that we will now see a leak against the Trump administration, and it may well come through WikiLeaks, whose “loyalty” to Trump has always been an assumption by its detractors. You may know better. This piece is being filed around 5pm US east coast time and published about 6pm same. In that hour, the story may turn again. Life upon dat wicked stage ain’t ever what a girl supposes …**
* Your regular reminder that ‘impeached’ simply means being committed to trial in the Senate
** Show Boat