Editorials of The Times

Posted May 6, 2018 9:27 p.m. EDT

‘I Did You a Great Favor When I Fired This Guy’

There was a time when it would have been a big deal that a lawyer for the president compared American law officers to Nazis. Unfortunately, in the Trump era, Rudy Giuliani’s reference to FBI agents as “storm troopers,” made last week during a television interview, will be forgotten in days.

This is partly a matter of sheer volume. There are so many scandals that Americans have only moments to focus on one before it’s overtaken by the next. But the remark also echoes a central theme of the Trump presidency and its attitude toward the rule of law.

So let’s pause to remember what happened one year ago this week, when, on an otherwise relatively quiet Tuesday afternoon, President Donald Trump fired the FBI director, James Comey. That shocking act remains the best distillation of the mindset of this president: He considers himself answerable to no one, and he has a peculiar notion that law enforcement should serve his political and personal interests.

The first official explanation for Comey’s dismissal was his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. If there were any doubts that this was a lie, Trump quickly erased them. In an interview with NBC two days later, the president noted that Comey had been leading the bureau’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. He said of the firing, “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.'”

The following week, The Times reported that the day after he dumped Comey, Trump entertained top Russian officials in the Oval Office. “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” he told them. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

To sum up: The president fired one of the nation’s leading law enforcement officials and then admitted, twice, that he did it to shut down an investigation into his campaign, his top associates and possibly himself.

To this day, Trump appears to believe the firing was a smart move. At a red-meat rally he held last month in Michigan, the president called Comey “a liar and a leaker,” and said, “I did you a great favor when I fired this guy.” The crowd roared as if it were watching a pro-wrestling match and Donald the Magnificent had just body-slammed Crybaby Comey.

Trump may live for the cheers, but he did himself no favors with the firing. It led to the appointment of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, whose investigation soon proved to be far more of a headache for the White House than Comey. Already Mueller has secured indictments of some of Trump’s top aides and guilty pleas from others.

Naturally, Trump has threatened or tried to fire Mueller and Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who appointed Mueller, and whom Trump appointed himself. Last week, enraged by Rosenstein’s refusal to turn over to congressional Republicans certain documents related to the Russia investigation, Trump tweeted that soon he “will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!”

It’s breathtaking and yet, by now, so predictable. Like aspiring authoritarians everywhere, Trump sees law enforcement in intensely personal terms. When the law investigates you, it’s a witch hunt; when it’s used to punish your enemies, it’s an essential tool.

“Rule of law” is a generic-sounding term, but Comey’s firing, and all that has followed in its wake, provides an opportunity to reaffirm its true meaning. In brief, it’s the idea that all of us are equal under the law, and that government actors are both limited by it and accountable to it. Trump and his crew see it differently. Consider Vice President Mike Pence’s praise last week for a former Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who routinely violated the constitutional rights of black and brown people and then openly disobeyed a federal court order to stop. Pence called Arpaio a “champion” of the “rule of law.” That could only be true if “rule of law” meant the rule of whoever happens to be in office.

Trump’s firing of Comey and his subsequent attacks on law enforcement have illuminated that the independence of the Justice Department is relatively recent, and revealed that it is more fragile than most of us imagined. The good news is that, for the time being at least, law enforcement officials, including those appointed by Trump himself, are doing their jobs and protecting the rule of law as it is properly understood. In the face of regular threats to his independence and his job by congressional Republicans, Rosenstein responded last week, “The Department of Justice is not going to be extorted.”

Officials like Comey, Mueller and Rosenstein — Republicans first appointed by Republican presidents — stand for a principle that Donald Trump and his supporters not only don’t understand, but find deeply threatening. For this reason, Americans should remember May 9, 2017, as the beginning of one of the great tests of American democracy.

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