Skip to content

Opinion: The Refrain Across Washington — ‘Not Since Watergate …’

There are indeed similarities between Comey and Archibald Cox’s 1973 ouster

Richard M. Nixon, pictured here in 1971, fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973, an event that draws comparisons to President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey on Tuesday, Shapiro writes. (CQ Roll Call Archive Photo)
Richard M. Nixon, pictured here in 1971, fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973, an event that draws comparisons to President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey on Tuesday, Shapiro writes. (CQ Roll Call Archive Photo)

The abrupt firing of James B. Comey as FBI director revealed an enduring truth about the next four years — there will never be a normal day as long as Donald Trump is in the White House. When things seem placid and uneventful in this administration, it is probably because we do not yet know about the abnormalities that are transpiring beneath the surface.

Tuesday seemed like an ordinary spring day in Washington. There were no high-octane congressional hearings, legislative showdowns or significant protests in the streets. Even the FBI director felt secure enough in his position to leave town to attend a meeting in the Los Angeles field office.

What naifs we were from Comey on down.

Suddenly, we are expected to believe that Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who had promised to recuse himself from all matters relating to Russia) and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (on the job for just two weeks) had secretly decided on their own initiative to recommend that the president oust Comey.

And then — as a wise executive, acting on the recommendations from his team at the Justice Department — Trump decided on the spot to fire Comey by letter like he might discharge an underperforming painting contractor at one of his hotels.

There was none of the dignity of a formal face-to-face Oval Office meeting with the FBI director nor was there any time to line up a distinguished successor. Instead, this was Trump the Impetuous operating on his instincts while expecting his ham-handed White House staff and his chorus line of Capitol Hill apologists to clean up the mess behind him.

That unseemly haste (the documents from Sessions and Rosenstein were dated Tuesday) was in sharp contrast to the 18 days of dawdling and dithering after the White House was warned that national security adviser Michael Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

Maybe Trump in his Fox News-fueled fantasies convinced himself that Democrats would cheer him on since Hillary Clinton loudly maintains that Comey cost her the election. Maybe Trump actually believed that skeptics would be gulled by his claim in his letter to Comey, “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”

Instead, the Comey firing prompted everyone in journalism to type the same three words: “Not since Watergate …”

There are indeed similarities between Comey and Archibald Cox, the bow-tied special prosecutor fired by Richard Nixon in 1973 in what is remembered as the Saturday Night Massacre. In his exquisitely timed new Nixon biography, John A. Farrell quotes Cox as admitting that perhaps he had gotten “too big for my britches — that what I see as principle could be vanity.”

Comey might say the same thing if he had a reflective temperament. The only apparent principle that Comey followed in his explosive public statements about Clinton during the 2016 campaign was a fervent belief in his own stiff-necked rectitude.

It is easy to believe that Comey was sincere when he recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election.” But just lacking partisan motivation did not justify his thumb-on-the-scales interventions into the campaign.

Only an investor in a Trump casino or a graduate of Trump University would be gullible enough to believe that Comey was fired solely for his misjudgments during the campaign. It is impossible to see Trump, who reveled in chants of “Lock her up” about his Democratic opponent, as a late-in-life crusader on behalf of Justice Department guidelines.

An FBI director has a 10-year term for a reason — to remove a president’s temptation to curtail an investigation of his administration or personal misconduct.

That is why the Comey ouster is far more alarming than the removal of Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in New York, and Sally Yates as acting attorney general. Bharara and Yates were political appointees subject to the normal turnover of government. Comey, most decidedly, was not in that category.

The Comey firing is the latest installment in an ongoing test of the patriotism, courage and political morality of congressional Republicans. Only the GOP majority has the power to ensure an impartial and fully staffed investigation of the suspicious links that appear to connect Trump and his advisers with Russian interests.

There is the sense that many Republicans — following the lead of Mitch McConnell — are willing to swap any skepticism about Trump’s conduct for conservative judges and tax cuts. McConnell made this clear Wednesday morning in a nothing-to-see-here speech on the Senate floor as he chided Democrats for “complaining about the removal of an FBI director whom they themselves repeatedly and sharply criticized.”

What McConnell and company fail to understand is that conservative judges matter little if the president is allowed to meddle with the FBI and trample on the norms of democracy. And the tax cuts would come at the cost of the souls of those Republicans who continue to be Trump’s willing enablers.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

Recent Stories

At the Races: Run the World (Older Women)

As younger members of Congress leave, veteran members are trying to get back in

Technology Can Be the Real Game Changer in Corrections

Democrats ask insurers to meet contraceptive coverage mandate

Greatest Generation Coin will help preserve World War II Memorial for future generations

Lawmakers press to avoid funding pitfall for public defenders