Ill met by moonlight, a dozen reporters and cameramen peered into the darkness. Where was Sean Spicer? The press secretary had given a TV interview at 9pm then disappeared behind an awning, apparently conferring with colleagues. Journalists waited on the drive. The White House glowed behind them. “This is so weird,” one said. “It’s like hunting a dog and then killing it.”
A couple of minutes later Spicer emerged on a path running along a fence and hedgerow. He was caught in a blinding light and asked the cameramen to turn it off. “Relax, enjoy the night, have a glass of wine,” he said jocularly. Spicer then spent 12 minutes trying to explain why Donald Trump had taken the most explosive decision of his young presidency: axing the director of the FBI.
But the rationale that Spicer presented – that Trump had been acting on the recommendation of the attorney general and his deputy – was shredded by the president himself two days later. He had already decided that James Comey must go regardless of the recommendation, Trump said, because he was a “grandstander” and “showboat”.
The man who sealed his fame by telling reality TV show contestants “You’re fired!” had now done it to America’s top law enforcement official, creating a public relations catastrophe. Comey was only the second FBI director to be dismissed. Not since Richard Nixon had a US president fired the person leading an investigation bearing on himself.
That investigation is examining Russian interference in last year’s election with potential Trump campaign collusion. The removal of Comey prompted accusations of a cover-up, warnings of a constitutional crisis, and comparisons with the Watergate scandal that brought Nixon down. The president fuelled the fire by suggesting he had “tapes” of his conversations with the FBI director.
Even for Trump, the inveterate rule-breaker, it was outrageous new territory. It prompted anew the question: just how much is the Republican party able and willing to tolerate? “With an approval rating of 35%, he’s a liability in the 2018 elections, not an asset,” said Rick Tyler, the former communications director for Senator Ted Cruz, a rival of Trump in the party primaries. “At some point they’re going to have to tell the president: shape up or ship out.”
Less than a week earlier, Trump had welcomed dozens of Republican House members to the Rose Garden at the White House to celebrate the passage of a healthcare bill. It seemed to be a moment of respite, of getting on track, of making peace with the party. “Hey, I’m president!” Trump said. “Can you believe it?”
There was no hint of what was to come. Contrary to Spicer’s explanation, Trump had decided Comey’s fate long ago. He was, according to multiple US media reports, angered by the FBI’s director’s dogged pursuit of the Russia investigation, ease in the media limelight (FBI directors are supposed to keep a low profile), insouciance when it came to White House leaks and failure to back the president’s allegation of wiretapping against Barack Obama.
Last weekend, it seems, Trump decided to pull the trigger. The Washington Post reported: “At his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, Trump groused over Comey’s latest congressional testimony, which he thought was ‘strange,’ and grew impatient with what he viewed as his sanctimony, according to White House officials. Comey, Trump figured, was using the Russia probe to become a martyr.”
When he returned to the Oval Office on Monday, Trump summoned attorney general Jeff Sessions and his deputy Rod Rosenstein and told them to make the case against Comey in writing. With Sessions having recused himself from the Russia investigation over his contacts with the Russian ambassador, it was left to Rosenstein to do the heavy lifting in a memo that cited the FBI director’s mishandling of last year’s Hillary Clinton email investigation.
On Tuesday afternoon, Trump called senior members of both parties to inform them of his decision. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, told him: “You are making a big mistake.” But the president went ahead anyway. There have been many political earthquakes since Trump was sworn in on 20 January but this hit a new spike on the Richter scale.
The crude method of dismissal also caused disquiet. Shortly before Spicer’s manoeuvres in the dark on Tuesday night, the FBI director had been addressing staff in Los Angeles when news of his termination flashed up on TV screens. At first he laughed, thinking it was a prank, the New York Times reported, but then his staff intervened, he stopped speaking and, in a side office, learned it was no joke.
When the Guardian asked Spicer why the dismissal had not been done in person or by phone, as is customary in most walks of life, he said only that a message had been sent by hand to FBI headquarters and electronically. Some commentators felt the rushed nature of the deed and basic lack of courtesy spoke volumes.
A political novice governing by gut instinct, Trump appeared to have made arguably his biggest misjudgment yet. He seemed to think that Comey’s unpopularity on both sides of the aisle (Clinton has blamed him for her loss) would make it a win-win for him; instead it was a spectacular lose-lose. He told Justice with Judge Jeanine on Fox News: “I guess I was a little bit surprised, because all of the Democrats, I mean, they hated Jim Comey. They didn’t like him. They wanted him fired or whatever. And then all of a sudden, they come out with these glowing reports. Look, it’s politics.”
Charlie Sykes, a conservative author and broadcaster, said: “It’s stunning they didn’t think it would be this controversial. It’s an example of his ignorance of American political history and the norms and traditions of the system.”
What he failed to consider was the Russia question. Reports emerged that Comey had been accelerating the investigation and seeking more resources as he became increasingly concerned about evidence of collusion. Democratic senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said: “I think the Comey operation was breathing down the neck of the Trump campaign and their operatives, and this was an effort to slow down the investigation.”
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told HBO: “If there was no ‘there there’, James Comey would still have a job.”
On Tuesday night, Democrat after Democrat lined up to use the word Nixonian and draw parallels with the so-called Saturday Night Massacre when, in 1973, Nixon sought to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor leading the Watergate investigation, triggering resignations and then Cox’s dismissal. Many demanded the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into Russiagate.
Republican elders were also dismayed. Bill Brock, a former labour secretary under President Ronald Reagan, said: “It was either way too late or way too early. The FBI as an organisation is sacrosanct in this country: non-political, non-partisan, with brilliant people working for it, and I hate to see it being dragged into this mess.”
The following morning, Trump lived up to his reputation for spectacle beyond the likes of Scandal or Veep. Of all the days, he hosted Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak. American media did not have access to the meeting but photos taken by a Russian state news media photographer were posted online. A White House official was quoted by CNN: “They tricked us. That’s the problem with the Russians – they lie.”
And then, when US media did gain access to the Oval Office, they found not Lavrov but a surprise visitor: 93-year-old Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state under Nixon. It was either coincidence, or evidence of a particularly dark sense of humour.
The White House stuck to its line until Thursday: that Trump had fired Comey based on Rosenstein’s recommendation and because he had lost the confidence of FBI colleagues (many FBI members disputed this). But then the president gave an interview to NBC News that blew this out of the water. “Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey,” he said.
Startlingly, Trump also revealed that Russia was a factor in his thinking. “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said: ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.’”
And, Trump told NBC News, he had asked Comey – over dinner and in two phone calls – whether he was personally under investigation, and was told not. During the dinner, according to an associate quoted by the New York Times and Associated Press, Trump asked for Comey’s loyalty, implying a possible obstruction of justice. Trump has denied this.
As the story dominated the news cycle of what was supposed to be a quiet week, Trump reached for Twitter. He posted on Friday morning: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” The White House refused to deny that Trump had made secret recordings.
The Democratic response to the week’s events was predictable; that of the Republicans less so. Trump was, after all, an outsider who staged a hostile takeover of the party in last year’s election. His relationship with Republicans on Capitol Hill remains fractious. It could have been a moment to emulate Howard Baker, a Republican senator from Tennessee who, during the Watergate investigation, took a stand and asked: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
Indeed, in the first few hours, some critical voices emerged. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said the timing and reasoning did not make sense. Senator John McCain called for a select committee to investigate and told security experts: “This scandal is going to go on. This is a centipede. I guarantee you there will be more shoes to drop.” Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona tweeted that he has spent several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey’s firing and could not do it.
But the centre held, at least for now. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who have already swallowed numerous indignities for the sake of their legislative agenda, batted away calls for a special prosecutor and accused the Democrats of double standards.
Cabinet veteran Brock, 86, agrees. “I don’t think there’s any comparable situation with what President Nixon did,” he said. “The Democrats are clearly overstating the case. They said James Comey has lost all credibility. That is the height of hypocrisy and I find it totally repugnant. Let’s agree how we can move this process forward without playing the political card. I would welcome it if the president called for a special prosecutor.”
Conservative author Sykes described the Republican reaction as “a mixed bag”. He said: “It is significant the number of Republicans who are willing to distance themselves from the decision. There are some signs of cracks in the support.
“I’m personally disappointed in Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and I also think they’re making a mistake. This is going to be a distraction from the agenda and makes all their legislative programmes harder to get through. This has been the pattern: they’ve been willing to roll over because they think they’ll get their programme through but the price tag keeps going up. If it begins to dawn on them there’ll be a high cost next year [in the mid-term elections], that could change the calculation.”
The Comey firing led to renewed soul-searching in the conservative movement, which has ostensibly embraced Trump despite his uncertain values. Sykes added: “From the moment he was nominated, he posed an existential threat to conservatism. There was a time when conservatives would have been horrified at having a president who has so much contempt for the norms and traditions of government, or the separation of powers, or the rule of law. The fact they’re rolling over on this is defining test of conservatism.”
With a single, ill-considered and poorly executed act, Trump stunned Washington, sowed discontent at the FBI and inadvertently gave fresh impetus to two congressional investigations into Russia’s election meddling. It was a sobering reminder to Republicans about who they must wake up next to every day. They must live with the savaging of norms, the outlandish tweets, the profound unpredictability.
Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: “Their destiny is something they embraced when they nominated him because Donald Trump is not a conservative.”
In a simple message to Republicans, he added: “You clearly made an assessment his brand of politics, or whatever you want to call it, was worth the risk, and now you have to account for it.”
Voters are unleashing their anger at Republicans on issues such as healthcare at town hall events. A Quinnipiac University poll, conducted before Comey was fired, found Trump’s favorability rating at an all-time low of 35%. And by a record 54%-38% margin, voters said they would prefer the Democrats rather than Republicans to control the House.
Paradoxically, the healthcare bill that was cause for euphoria in the Rose Garden could, through its effects in stripping health insurance from millions of people, cost the party more votes than the Comey saga. Trump may then find himself running out of friends fast. Principles are one thing; popularity another.