Comey's Firing Helps Demean the U.S. Globally

As Europe rejects populism and Russian interference, U.S. leadership weakens.

Justice on pause.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The so-called Trump-Russia scandal is eating the U.S. from the inside, undermining the country's global role at least as much as President Donald Trump's erratic moves do. The firing of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey is another dent in the U.S. leadership of the Western world, which comes against the background of a resurgent Europe.

There is an obvious political background to Comey's dismissal. Trump's official reason is that he mishandled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server, and until he was fired Democrats agreed with that. Clinton herself has blamed her 2016 electoral defeat on "the combination of Jim Comey's letter on October 28" -- the one that signaled the email investigation wasn't over -- and "Russian WikiLeaks." Now, however, Democrats are up in arms because Comey led the U.S. executive branch's only investigation into the alleged Russian interference in the election. Apparently, Clinton's backers hoped Comey would shed light on the other reason she lost, but now these hopes have been dashed.

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The hullabaloo surrounding Comey's firing doesn't just politicize law enforcement and make the opposition party look silly -- it makes Trump look as though he were afraid of the Russia-related investigation. It reinforces the narrative that the U.S. president was helped to his post by a hostile foreign power, and it does so at a time when Emmanuel Macron is celebrating his victory in the French presidential election though the same toolkit -- fake news, social network bots and hacking -- was used against him. It makes the U.S. democracy look weak and unstable as one European country after another shows it can successfully resist populist challenges like Trump's. 

The current economic optics in Europe are only reinforcing that view. For years since the global financial crisis, the European Union was portrayed in the U.S. as the sick man of the Western world. That case can no longer be made in good faith. In the first quarter of this year, the U.S. economy grew at a 0.7 percent annual rate, while the euro area added 1.7 percent. This may merely be cyclical, and those clinging to the concept of a backward Europe point out its higher unemployment level. That, however, may be down to calculation methods: In the U.S., labor force participation has been going down in recent years while in Europe, it has remained largely stable. 

As the economy begins to look up, discontent with the EU and with centrist national governments is beginning to fade. Polls show an increased level of support for the European project, and moderate, pro-EU forces have recently won elections from Bulgaria to France. The trend is bound to continue in Germany in the fall. Italy, a laggard in post-crisis reforms, still has a populist movement neck-and-neck with the ruling center-left party in the polls, but that follows recent patterns in the Netherlands and France where populists lost ground in the pre-election weeks. 

In every one of the European countries quashing populist revolts, the Kremlin has interfered, to the best of its ability. President Vladimir Putin's party, United Russia, signed an official cooperation agreement with Austria's far right Freedom Party, whose candidate lost the presidential election late last year. The Russian propaganda machine backed Geert Wilders' Freedom Party in the Netherlands, and it was badly beaten by the party of centrist Prime Minister Mark Rutte despite initially leading in the polls. France's National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, received Russian funding and propaganda backing; pro-Russian conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon also had the support of Russian state media and the Kremlin's internet machine -- both suffered resounding defeats. In Bulgaria, the pro-EU party of current Prime Minister Boiko Borisov beat all the pro-Russian forces despite that country's strong ties with Russia. The Kremlin even failed in its alleged efforts to install friendly governments in Macedonia and Montenegro.

In other words, Russia has been failing consistently to subvert European democracies, young and shaky and long-established ones alike, despite Russia's geographic proximity and stronger spy and contact networks than in the U.S. And yet here we have the political elite of the most powerful nation on earth, the U.S., continuing to kick about allegations that its leader was elected thanks to a Russian effort -- and the leader reacting angrily to the accusations and flailing about to make things even worse. 

In an October, 2016 speech, Putin ridiculed the nascent "Trump-Russia story":

Does anyone seriously think that Russia can in any way influence the American people's choice? Is America some kind of banana republic or what? America is a great power. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Instead of correcting Putin, Americans are checking the definition of "banana republic"; commentaries on the "banana republic" page of the Merriam-Webster dictionary's website reveal that people are worried their country might be turning into one. Just to be clear: The dictionary says a banana republic is "a small dependent country usually of the tropics; especially: one run despotically." That's definitely not the U.S. But those who claim Trump's victory may have been orchestrated by Russia cast the U.S. as "dependent," and Trump responds with the moves of a would-be despot so you can see why the label sticks.

 Leading the Western world is impossible from this position, especially if Europe continues to demonstrate a healthier alternative. The U.S. is still a powerful democracy, and there are more elections to fight. In the next ones, both parties -- and, hopefully, third forces -- can field better candidates and resist outside interference as effectively as Europeans have done. That will do more to restore the respect the U.S. has been losing than any outcome of any Russia-related investigation. But for now, the more Trump resists the inquiry, the harder it will be to move on from one.

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:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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