The president of the United States represents the most powerful nation on earth and is the leader of the free world. Within the executive branch, the White House is the engine that keeps the wheels of government turning. It is the bully pulpit to articulate the people’s voice. And it provides a modest source of pomp and circumstance to elevate the country.
We respect the office of the president, irrespective of the policies, party or proclivities of its occupant. And we expect the occupant of the office to respect it and the people it serves. But for the first time since the Nixon presidency, we have real concerns that our expectations are not being met; the office itself seems to be in danger. President Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey last week was yet another action pointing to that conclusion.
Because of its timing and the president’s own stated reasons, Comey’s firing gave more support for the need for an independent investigation into Russian involvement in last fall’s election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
Let’s be clear: The Comey firing itself, even if we disagree with it, is perfectly sensible. Although Comey was only the second FBI director to be axed — William Sessions was dismissed by President Bill Clinton — as an executive branch official, Comey served at the pleasure of the president. So Trump had every right to fire him. But it was Trump’s explanation to Lester Holt of NBC News — that the FBI’s Russia probe was on his mind when he fired Comey and that he had supposedly extracted pledges from the FBI director that he was not under investigation — that raise questions of possible obstruction of justice, the very charge that led to Clinton’s impeachment.
This isn’t a “Saturday Night Live” skit. It is, instead, the real-life theater of the absurd that America and the world are being dragged into, and which appears to have no logical explanation. Following Comey’s firing, Trump’s aides, including Vice President Mike Pence, scurried out with one explanation, and then another. Trump gave a third version. Each or all of the explanations may be true, or none of them. It is even possible that Trump decided to fire Comey on a whim. We just don’t know.
What we do know, however, is that much of politics is about perception. Anything that diminishes the stature of the office of the president decreases what the occupant can accomplish. When Trump goes to Israel and the West Bank next week, how much credibility will he bring with him to “reach the ultimate deal,” a Palestinian-Israeli agreement? Given the chaotic shifts in position, policy and objectives that have come from the White House over the past several months, Trump may not have much credibility at all. That’s not only disappointing and disheartening; it is, to borrow a word from the president’s lexicon, “sad.”