I SUSPECT Donald Trump enjoyed firing people on “The Apprentice” more than he has from the Oval Office. On his reality show, Trump was guaranteed a gilded, glowing close-up, a swelling score, and a polished production that ensured that the person he sacked had it coming and Trump was the hero of his own story. “You’re fired!” he’d say, and he was met with silent gulps and accepting nods, nary a challenge to his authority to drop the guillotine.
In the reality show known as 2017 that we’re collectively living, when the president axed FBI Director James Comey this week, the heroic background music and bipartisan approbation Trump expected were replaced by yelps of protest, from defenders of democratic norms and independent investigations, and from gobsmacked congressional Democrats and a few Republicans exhausted from defending Trump’s high-handed hijinks.
Imagine an alternate reality in which Comey testified Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, answering questions on the probe he was overseeing into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and any evidence of links to Trump’s campaign, instead of puttering in his yard, where reporters saw him the day after he learned he was fired from an aide who saw it on TV.
Congress and the public would have learned of the accelerating Russia investigation for which Comey requested daily updates and last week sought more funding from the same deputy attorney general who was told to write the memo Tuesday justifying Comey’s firing. That alternate reality of accountable government was what we used to call “reality.”
But Trump short-circuited Comey’s testimony by firing him, unleashing the most serious crisis of confidence yet in an administration that has lurched from one crisis to another like an unseaworthy canoe buffeted by choppy waves created by its own incompetent rowing and rocking. It’s a ride that’s left much of America feeling “mildly nauseous,” to quote Comey’s self-description last week at the thought he may have swung the election by announcing new e-mails (which were the same old e-mails) linked to Hillary Clinton 11 days before the election.
Surrounded by Yes Men too sycophantic or terrified to challenge him, Trump demands adulation. It’s easy to see him taking Comey’s nausea comment as an affront. But it boggles the mind that his inner circle could be so ignorant to the appalling optics (to say nothing of the substance) of firing the official in charge of an investigation into Russian interference the day before Trump yukked it up with the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office — a meeting from which US press was barred, while a Russian state photographer was welcomed.
Trump’s tissue-paper-thin, laughably implausible justification for the firing is that Comey mishandled the investigation of Clinton’s e-mails. But as a candidate, Trump lauded Comey’s reopening of the probe, saying, “What he did was the right thing.”
By Jan. 22, reams had been written blaming (or crediting) Comey’s October surprise nothing-burger for Trump’s win, and Trump wasn’t as enamored of Comey anymore, remarking, “He’s become more famous than me.”
In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt Thursday, Trump said that the FBI was “in turmoil” and Comey was a “showboat” whom he would’ve fired regardless of any Justice Department recommendation.
Bizarrely, the president seems to think that by firing people who are investigating inconvenient things, he can shut down probes with an imperious “Nothing to see here.”
Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates was fired after warning the White House that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn could be blackmailed by Russia for failing to disclose contacts with Moscow, and after refusing to enforce a travel ban that courts have since deemed illegal.
Unlike in “The Apprentice,” in real life those you fire don’t just disappear. Yates testified Monday, and senators have invited Comey to testify in closed session next Tuesday. Dozens of officials are cited in leading news organizations’ accounts of l’affaire Comey contradicting the president. One wonders if Melania is the only one who’s not leaking.
Leaks will continue, Republicans may be unable to stomach affronts to democratic process, and this will play out in ways that Trump cannot control.
One saving grace of the reality we’re living is that, unlike reality television, the ending isn’t scripted by the boss.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow her on @Indira_L