White House

Comey's Firing Demands a New Theory of Trump

The latest extraordinary development in his presidency points to more than mere incompetence.

Uncharted territory.

Photographer: Russia Foreign Minister Press Ofice/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The president's incompetence was never in doubt. This is something else.

There are three master theories of the shambles of the Trump presidency up to this point. First, the president is evil. Second, he's amazingly incompetent. Third, he's evil and amazingly incompetent. What light does the latest extraordinary development -- the firing of FBI Director James Comey -- shed on this question?

Capitol Hill Searches for Answers on Comey Firing

Up to now I've preferred the amazing incompetence theory of Trump, partly on grounds of parsimony (it seemed to explain the salient facts) and partly because careless accusations of evil can be politically counterproductive (they rally supporters and undermine critics' standing with the open-minded). Now I'm wondering.

Certainly, the incompetence in this latest turn of events is staggering on any analysis of the president's motives. Yet, much more than before, the question of intent is front and center: It can't be set aside.

It would have been one thing to fire Comey -- a reckless thing to do but possible to justify. It's true that he's blundered repeatedly and in ways that have harmed the reputation of the FBI. What cannot conceivably be justified is firing him now, without a remotely plausible explanation for the timing.

The FBI is investigating links between Russia and the Trump campaign. The suspicion that Trump has fired Comey to hobble or delay that investigation arises immediately. It beggars belief that Trump should fire Comey without providing a jot of reassurance that this was not his purpose. One wonders, what did he expect people to think? And I'm not just talking about people who've been wholly committed to the theory of evil intent all along.

On any view, incompetence is still a necessary part of the story. Suppose for the sake of argument that Trump has nothing to be afraid of in the Russia investigation, that he simply can't stand Comey and wishes he'd fired him immediately on taking office. This is not impossible. Even so, it would still be amazing incompetence to fire him now, without a compelling explanation, before the Russia investigations have put those unwarranted suspicions to rest.

Suppose, alternatively, that Trump is indeed afraid of what the Russia investigation will find. You still need incompetence to account for his latest actions -- because the effort to hide the truth (if that's what it is) is bound to fail, because the blatantly unexplained firing of Comey was certain to intensify opposition, and because Republicans are now thinking hard about what they have to lose by continuing to support the president. Put it this way: If Trump fears that impeachment may lie in his future, the manner of Comey's firing brings it forward. A smart plan to evade the consequences of his or his associates' illicit actions in the Russia affair would not be unfolding like this.

Stunning incompetence is therefore a given -- but we already knew that. After Comey, what's changed is that no open-minded person can any longer dismiss the possibility that Trump is not just a grossly incompetent president, but one who's broken the law and aims to get away with it. It falls to Trump to refute that accusation, not with bluster but with facts. If he can't or won't, Congress needs to act.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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