WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s abrupt dismissal of FBI Director James Comey was the clearest demonstration yet that he won’t be bound by the traditions and norms of his office, freely bucking political conventions that serve as a check on presidential powers.
Trump’s dismissal of Comey, who led the FBI’s investigation into possible ties between Russian officials and the president’s associates, has rendered the White House under siege, drawing rebukes from lawmakers from both political parties and sparking comparisons to Richard Nixon’s efforts to quash an investigation of his presidency in the 1970s. But for Trump, the celebrity outsider whose insurgent campaign relished flouting the norms of American politics, the firing almost felt like business as usual.
He had urged the Senate to use the “nuclear option” to blow up parliamentary rules to win approval for his Supreme Court nominee. He has relied on executive orders to push through his agenda and has taken the extraordinary step of criticizing the judiciary for blocking his plans. He has ordered his White House to place political operatives inside federal agencies and moved to control their messaging, even on matters as trivial as the size of the inauguration crowd. And he has weaponized his Twitter account to make unprecedented personal attacks.
His handling of Comey’s dismissal vividly illustrated the mercurial, scorched-earth style that Trump forged in the business world and last year’s campaign, but has been met with fierce resistance in Washington.
FBI directors, with rare exceptions, serve 10-year terms, meaning they carry over to at least two presidencies, no matter if there’s a change in parties. That is born of effort to keep the position independent of politics, a barrier Trump seemed to shatter by firing Comey amid the hyperpartisan Russia investigation.
Trump had a love-hate relationship with Comey during the campaign that vacillated wildly depending on the status of the bureau’s investigation into rival Hillary Clinton’s use of her private email server.
After Trump won, Democrats eviscerated Comey, suggesting that he had meddled in the election and tipped it the Republican’s way. The new president, meanwhile, seemed to warm to Comey, literally embracing him at a White House ceremony in January, saying that the director had “become more famous than me.”
But as investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia dragged on, the president grew increasingly angry that the probe continued to dominate the news, blocking out what he saw as his triumphs. Frustrated by checks on his power, he has vented to those close to him that Comey had not done enough to investigate and stop leaks about the probe, according to two people with knowledge of the president’s conversations.
So on Tuesday, as Comey was in California, Trump sent his longtime bodyguard to deliver a note to FBI headquarters firing its director. A political firestorm ignited immediately.
“Nixon is the only comparison that can be made,” said Elaine Kamarck, a governance specialist at the Brookings Institution who had served in the Clinton administration. “I am less sure it’s a deliberate style than just being irrational. And if it is a deliberate strategy, I am not sure it’s working effectively.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders insisted Wednesday that the dismissal had nothing to do with the Russia investigation but stemmed from the president’s “erosion in confidence” in Comey.
Since taking office, Trump has continued to rely on the go-it-alone, scattershot tactics that seemed to be validated by his improbable November victory. The novice campaigner used the sheer force of his celebrity and personality to draw loyal supporters and frequently bend the Republican Party to his whims. He took office armed with a vow to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption while his aides vowed to dismantle its ineffective institutions.
He raged against America’s own intelligence services for allegedly leaking embarrassing details about his White House. When his travel ban was struck down twice in federal court, he threatened to take apart the San Francisco-based court and tweeted “First the Ninth Circuit rules against the ban & now it hits again on sanctuary cities-both ridiculous rulings. See you in the Supreme Court!”
And he claimed that President Barack Obama had ordered that he and associates be wireptapped, an unfounded claim that rattled the ongoing Russian probe.
“When he ran his business, his power was unchecked and he could do what he likes and during the campaign he could act how he wanted and never lost his supporters,” said Douglas Brinkley, professor of political science at Rice University. “But that type of behavior has ramifications as president. And if you can get away with firing the FBI director, you’re going to think you can get away with anything.”
Associated Press Writer Jonathan Lemire has covered The White House and politics for The Associated Press since 2013.
Follow Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire