Peter Baker, the talented New York Times journalist, frets that Robert Mueller’s investigation has erased a line drawn after Watergate. Baker writes:
After Watergate, it was unthinkable that a president would fire an F.B.I. director who was investigating him or his associates. Or force out an attorney general for failing to protect him from an investigation. Or dangle pardons before potential witnesses against him.
But the end of the inquiry by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, made clear that President Trump had successfully thrown out the unwritten rules that had bound other chief executives in the 45 years since President Richard M. Nixon resigned under fire, effectively expanding presidential power in a dramatic way.
Overall, I don’t think Trump’s conduct in response to this assault on his presidency was more norm-violating than Bill Clinton’s response when his presidency was at risk. Comparing Trump’s behavior to presidents who didn’t face an aggressive investigator whose findings might sink him makes little sense.
As for Baker’s bill of particulars, I don’t know that President Trump “dangled pardons before potential witnesses against him.” And though I wasn’t happy about the way Trump treated Jeff Sessions, I think any president would be disappointed to see the Attorney General absent himself, whether for valid ethical reasons or not, from an investigation the president knew all along to be baseless, but that was undercutting his presidency.
How long would Eric Holder have lasted if he had been other than President Obama’s wing man (as Holder described himself). No longer than Sessions did, I suspect.
The outcome of the Comey firing doesn’t stand for the proposition that a president can fire with impunity an FBI director who’s investigating him. If anything, it stands for the proposition that firing an FBI director under these circumstances will lead to a more searching investigation by a special counsel with seemingly unlimited resources and an open-ended mandate.
And even if there had been no special counsel, the firing of Comey was never going to end the investigation. It’s also the case that, at the time he was fired, Comey had told Trump he hadn’t found evidence of collusion. Comey was fired mainly, it seems, not because he was in the process of uncovering collusion, but because he was unwilling to tell the American public he had uncovered none.
I don’t see the ruin in firing Comey for that reason.
It’s true that Trump has shattered his share of presidential norms — a modicum of civility being one of them. But he hasn’t shattered the ones Baker expresses concern about or any others that threaten the Republic.
What’s most striking to me about Baker’s article is the shattered norms he seems unconcerned about. It’s a norm, I think, that top intelligence and other officials from an outgoing administration do not peddle false stories suggesting that a candidate, much less the president-elect, has conspired with a foreign adversary.
This norm, we now know, was violated in 2016 and early 2017. There has been no serious reckoning. Peter Baker seems not to fret at all about this.