Friday, February 23, 2018
Opinion

Bret Stephens: The Comey canning's easy tells

With Donald Trump, the tells are always easy.

When the president says, "I'm, like, a smart person," you know he nurses deep insecurities about his intelligence. When he says, "I'm really rich," you know that he knows that you know that, really, he probably isn't.

And when he writes, as he did in his letter to the now-former FBI director, James B. Comey, that "while I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation," you know what keeps him up at night, too.

That wasn't the only tell in Trump's Comey canning. First there was its abruptness. Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general as of two weeks ago, delivered his memorandum detailing Comey's misfeasance in the Hillary Clinton email saga on Tuesday. Trump fired the director the same day.

Come again? This is the same administration that waited 18 long days to fire a national security adviser profoundly vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Why? Because, as press secretary Sean Spicer explained earlier this week, the White House felt it owed Michael Flynn an "element of due process."

For Comey, not so much. He learned of his dismissal from a TV screen, while delivering a speech to bureau employees. Firings on The Apprentice had more class and ceremony than this.

Then there is Rosenstein's memo, which makes a solid case that Comey bungled nearly every aspect of the Clinton investigation — a revelation to nobody in Washington, left or right, except perhaps Comey himself. Nor was there any mystery about any of this when Trump gave the director his very public blessing at a White House ceremony in January, resisting the advice of prominent conservative voices to fire him back then.

But if the memo broke no new ground, there was something crassly novel about the political uses to which the administration was willing to put Rosenstein and his reputation for ethical behavior.

In a CNN interview Tuesday, Kellyanne Conway stressed Rosenstein's service as U.S. attorney in Maryland under Barack Obama, along with the Senate's 94-6 vote to confirm him. This is another tell, since the ordinary practice of this White House is to impugn the motives of anyone suspected of enjoying the favor of Democrats. Just look at Sean Spicer's Tuesday denigration of the former acting attorney general Sally Yates as an alleged Hillary hack for her prescient warnings to the White House about Flynn.

In other words, the White House needed the cover of an honorable man making an honest case against Comey to disguise its own case against him, which is neither honorable nor honest. How do we know? By following @realDonaldTrump on Twitter.

"F.B.I. Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!" the president wrote May 2. "The phony Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?"

Tell: After the president publicly impugned his own FBI director, it meant Rosenstein's memo was a pro forma, pretextual exercise.

Tell: When the president boasts about his great campaign, you know he's less than sure about just how great it really was.

Tell: When the president calls news "fake" or a story "phony," you know the truth quotient is likely to be high. And, again, you know he knows you know it.

All the more so thanks to reporting from the New York Times' Matthew Rosenberg and Matt Apuzzo, who revealed Wednesday that Comey had only recently asked Rosenstein "for a significant increase in resources for the bureau's investigation into Russia's interference in the presidential election." For the record, the Justice Department denies the claim.

For the administration's apologists, the fallback line is that the Russia investigation will continue no matter who succeeds Comey. That might be credible if, say, the former New York Police Department commissioner Ray Kelly gets the job. And if Chris Christie or Rudy Giuliani gets it?

In all this, the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma is Russia.

Golf courses: Russia. Mike Flynn's lies to the vice president: Russia. Jeff Sessions' lies to the Senate: Russia. Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Roger Stone: Russia. WikiLeaks: Russia. Donald Trump Jr.: Russia. The Bayrock Group: Russia. Erik Prince's diplomatic back channel: Russia.

No one piece in this (partial) list is incriminating. And with Trump, the line between incompetence and nefariousness, misjudgment and misdirection, is usually a blurry one.

Still, Jim Comey's firing now brings two points into high relief. First, the administration is not being truthful when it claims the director was dismissed for what he did last summer. Second, Donald Trump is afraid. A president who seeks to hide a scandal may be willing to risk an uproar.

© 2017 New York Times

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