— -- A president who thrives on crises has created the biggest one yet of his presidency.
President Trump’s decision to fire James Comey creates a crisis of confidence around the federal government on a level that most likely hasn’t been seen since Watergate. With the tangled threads of Russian influence, last year’s presidential election and an active FBI investigation, Trump’s move will test loyalties and force a moment of truth for his Republican allies and his Justice Department.
No one is seriously questioning whether the president acted within his authority, and the White House’s official explanation for what transpired is straightforward enough. According to that version of events, the attorney general and deputy attorney general recommended Comey’s ouster, and the president quickly agreed and acted accordingly.
“The president made the right decision at the right time,” Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
But the question that confronts lawmakers and other interested parties is a stubborn one: What in the president’s behavior in office should entitle him to the benefit of the doubt?
Even if chants of “Lock her up” weren’t echoing still and if the Russian foreign minister hadn’t happened to be visiting the White House the day after the firing, the facts create a problem of perceptions if not realities for the Trump White House.
Trump, the public is being told, fired Comey immediately after receiving the recommendation from Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Earlier this week, evidence emerged that Trump took a full 18 days to fire his national security adviser after being told by the acting attorney general at the time that he could be compromised by the Russians.
As for Russia, Trump noted in his letter firing Comey that the FBI director told him on three separate occasions that he is “not under investigation” — conversations that had not been reported previously. It was an odd note to include in a letter firing Comey for something that officially had nothing to do with that investigation.
Even that statement ignores the fact — as reiterated just last week by Comey — that the FBI is investigating campaign operatives’ alleged contacts and possible collusion with Russians in efforts to interfere with the election. That means Trump fired the man who was at the helm of the investigation into some of the president’s closest associates.
And the White House has well-established opinions on that investigation. Just a day before the firing, Trump declared the investigation to be a “total hoax” and a “taxpayer funded charade.” Hours after Comey was dismissed, a White House spokeswoman declared of the investigation, “It’s time to move on.”
Moving on cannot and will not occur that easily, though. Trump has not killed off the FBI investigation, which will continue, presumably, under the leadership of a new director. Those confirmation hearings figure to be brutal, with Senators seeking assurances that truth will be pursued.
Also, Trump can’t fire Congress, where House and Senate intelligence investigations have new urgency, given the turmoil at the Department of Justice. In just a hint of the blowback, Republicans are breaking ranks and joining Democrats in calls for a special prosecutor — outside the Trump administration’s chain of command — to take over the criminal inquiry.
Trump is inclined to distill almost everything to the politics of combat, and he continues to thrive on the chaos he helps create. True to form, he consumed the hours after Comey’s firing by responding to Democrats and cable coverage with a series of attack-style tweets on his critics.
But in this case, he has taken an action that transcends politics. At stake is the credibility of the federal government — its checks and balances and its intricate methods of maintaining democratic order.
Those facts are becoming obvious to a growing number of individuals charged with maintaining oaths that are broader than the presidency.