Whenever a big news political event takes place, especially one that focuses on some peculiarly Republican bit of malfeasance, first, liberals react very strongly and publicly. Some conservatives rely on the officially approved spin. But there are always a few conservative intellectuals, affecting the diction, tone, and high Brahmin style of the late William F. Buckley, who carefully explain how unreasoning and hysterical we’re all being. More-in-sorrow-than-anger, you understanding. Publishing this sort of article is, I think the raison d’etre of the National Review. Think of the British conservative historian, Paul Johnson, saying that no Europeans ever understood why poor Nixon was so badly treated: Watergate was no big deal.
It may have seemed strange to see precisely such an article in Vox.com. I know a lot of people consider Vox a liberal site. It really isn’t though. Their motto is ‘explain the news.’ Not comment on it (though they do sometimes offer a point of view), but inform people, let ’em know what the substance of some prominent news story is. They’re surely seen as an anti-Trump site, but it’s because they don’t pull punches; if someone is lying about something, they’ll point it out. I should say that I’m a big fan. But it isn’t at all out of character for Vox to publish a contrarian article saying ‘here’s what everyone is saying. And here’s why they’re wrong.’
And so, a couple of days ago, Vox published an article by Richard A. Epstein, entitled “Attention, liberals: Comey deserved to be fired, and the Constitution is just fine.” It’s a well-reasoned and thoughtful article, though, again, infused with that Buckley/George Will/Paul Johnson tone of injured intellectual superiority. Here it is.
Epstein begins by agreeing that the decision by Trump to fire James Comey was poorly timed, and a political miscalculation. He goes on: “There are of course many reasons why one might oppose Trump’s decision to fire Comey, but none of them remotely deserve the hyperbolic responses that Comey’s termination has elicited. There are two sides to every story, and in this case the other side has, at least for the moment, the better of the argument.”
Epstein argues, first, that Comey should have been fired long before, because of his mishandling of the Clinton email case. He treated her with kid gloves, says Epstein. He didn’t issue subpeonas to any Clinton aides, he allowed Cheryl Mills to represent herself, and he didn’t conduct any of the ambush interviews that are usual in criminal cases. He took it easy on her, kowtowing to his superiors in the Obama White House.
Second, Epstein says, “criticisms of Comey’s conduct in the Clinton investigation had nothing to do with the president’s decision, which was made, we are confidently told (on the basis of no firm evidence), because Comey was hot on the trail of information about possible ties between Trump, his supporters, and the Russians during the campaign.” Trump was, in Epstein’s view, perfectly justified in firing Comey over the mishandled Clinton email case, and there’s no reason to think Comey was fired for any more sinister reasons.
Finally, since Comey could legally be fired at any time by Trump, and given the ample reasons for dismissal detailed in the Rosenstein memo, it “requires contortions to convert an action that has independent justification into one that prompts talk of obstruction of justice and impeachment. In effect, one difficulty with that extravagant assertion is that it makes Comey de facto immovable from office so long as he continues to conduct this investigation.” Oh, and appointing a special prosecutor is also problematic. To whom would he report? Jeff Sessions? When there’s no smoke, there can’t be fire, says Epstein. And there’s no smoke.
Epstein also pushed back against the ‘Trump as incipient despot’ meme.
Nor is there anything to the claim that Trump has acted as a despot. Despots remove people in order to take over all the organs of government themselves. Cassidy seems to think the president has it within his power to appoint a successor to Comey entirely on his own, when the position requires confirmation by the Senate.
Allow me to respond.
First, Epstein seems to think that the case against Hillary Clinton ought to have been far more aggressively prosecuted, treated as the criminal investigation it was. But surely Epstein must acknowledge the political complexities of any case involving a major party Presidential candidate. I’m not saying that running for President is an excuse for all manner of criminal conduct. But at worst, Hillary Clinton was guilty of carelessness, possibly born of arrogance, and possibly reflecting her own discomfort with technology. And she was running for President; very likely to be elected President. (Sigh). Comey said, in a recent interview, that the difficulties of the Clinton case made him nauseous. I can well imagine it. Like it or not, the FBI is, if not a political organization, one that must of necessity sail on troubled political waters. Comey’s first loyalty had to be to the Constitution, of course (and no one has suggested he acted otherwise). But he had to think of protecting the Bureau itself, as an institution. I may disagree with some of the decisions he made. Some of those decisions do seem to have violated basic law enforcement protocols. But I don’t doubt that navigated those waters thoughtfully and carefully. He was in an impossible position.
And, while it’s not fair to call Epstein to account for actions that took place subsequent to the publication of his article, it really is true that the ‘Comey was fired because of his mishandling of the Clinton case’ narrative has been conclusively disproved. He really did fire Comey because, as Epstein puts it, “Comey was hot on the trail of information about possible ties between Trump, his supporters, and the Russians during the campaign.” Trump confirmed it Thursday night, in his interview with Lester Holt, when he didn’t so much admit as brag that he’d fired Comey because of his pursuit of the ‘fake news’ story about Trump campaign Russian collusion. That interview was an amazing piece of candor, not least because it threw so many members of his own communications staff under the bus, people who had been doggedly defending the Clinton email narrative, even when they sounded ridiculous doing so. Holt didn’t even seem to work very hard for it, considering that, in his interview, he got the President of the United States to admit to obstructing justice, an impeachable offense. Smoke enough for you, Mr. Epstein?
Epstein suggests that despots act despotically according to a plan. If Trump’s firing of Comey is in fact an egregious act of tyranny, well, what’s the next step? Replace Comey with Chris Christie? (Or Rudy Giuliani?) What reason do we have to assume the Senate will confirm someone like that?
But Trump isn’t that kind of tyrant. He seems to be more of an instinctual authoritarian, a guy who doesn’t so much act as react. News reports describe Trump as watching cable news incessantly, raging furiously whenever they focused on the ‘fake news’ of Trump’s Russian connections, and ignoring the (to him) much more consequential story of Obama’s bugging of Trump Tower. Never mind that that never happened. Trump seems to have convinced himself that it did happen, just as he convinced himself that his inaugural crowd was the biggest ever, or any of the other ludicrous things he apparently believes.
Trump isn’t the kind of incipient dictator who carefully plans every step of his way to the top. He’s not Frank Underwood (from House of Cards). He gets angry. No, he becomes incensed. And sometimes he’s able to blow off steam on Twitter. But sometimes, his choler leads him to act. And often enough, he gets away with it, frankly because it just never seems to have occurred to anyone to make certain Presidential actions illegal. Every previous President has been constrained by norms, by protocols, by traditions. But Trump isn’t constrained by anything. Except the Constitution. Which also infuriates him.
He fired Comey impulsively, unreasoningly, because he hates the Russia investigation (fake news!), and also, apparently, because Comey wouldn’t pledge loyalty to him, to Trump. And how will he deal with the aftermath? By bluffing, by lying, by counter-attacking. And by relying on the cowardice and hypocrisy and lack of patriotism of the Republican leadership.
So, yes, Mr. Epstein. There’s plenty of smoke. We’re not over-reacting; the ship of state really is on fire. What there isn’t, yet, is a fire department.