Trump’s explanation of Comey firing provides ultimate test of press’ fairness and truthfulness

by William H. Freivogel

President Trump’s entire presidency, his entire political career in fact, has provided the severest test to the mainstream media’s mission of presenting the news fairly and in context.  No previous president, not even Nixon, has lied so frequently and campaigned so vigorously to delegitimize mainstream journalism.

But Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey provided the toughest challenge yet for journalists trying to be objective while still reporting the truth.  The reason: The White House’s official explanation of Comey’s firing is almost certainly not the real explanation.

The official explanation by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein might have made sense if issued last July.  Rosenstein based his recommendation on Comey’s announcement that the FBI didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute Hillary Clinton for her email indiscretions.  Rosenstein is right in saying this generally is not the FBI’s job.  The FBI investigates and submits its findings to lawyers in the Justice Department who make the decision on prosecution. Comey, who himself was once deputy attorney general, took on the role of making the decision because Attorney General Loretta Lynch said she would accept his judgment and that of career prosecutors after Bill Clinton’s foolish visit to her on an airplane during the campaign.  It is debatable whether Comey should have made the final decision or whether he should have submitted the evidence to the highest ranking Justice Department official not conflicted.  Probably he should have done the latter.

But when the decision to fire Comey comes 10 months later, in the middle of the FBI’s investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 election, the press could hardly report Rosenstein’s explanation and leave it at that.  Every journalistic instinct tells reporters and editors – and probably most Americans – that Trump fired Comey because the FBI director was ramping up the Russia investigation, which Trump claims is fake news propagated by fake news outlets like The New York Times.  (There are echoes of “third rate burglary” in those Trump tweets.)

Charles Krauthammer, the conservative analyst on Fox, remarked on the implausibility of Trump’s explanation.  “Here is what is so odd about it. This is about, according to the letter by the Deputy Attorney General,… something that occurred on July 5. So we start out with something that is highly implausible. If that was so offensive to the Trump administration, What you would have done, in the transition, you would have spoken with Comey and said we are going to let you go. That’s when a president could very easily make a decision to have a change. That’s not unprecedented. But to fire him summarily with no warning in the middle of May because of something that happened in July is almost inexplicable. Second, the reason ostensibly is, as you read in the letter, for doing something that you are not supposed to do, to usurp the Attorney General. Second, to release all the information which was damaging to Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump’s opponent. Do we really believe that Donald Trump come after all these months, decided suddenly he had to fire this guy because he damaged Hillary back in July? Another implausible conjecture….”

Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, put it this way: “In an ingenious bit of Machiavellian jujitsu, Trump fired Comey for incompetence, simultaneously: (1) eliminating an independent official who might act as a check on illegal behavior, (2) paving the way for the appointment of a stooge, and (3) enhancing Trump’s tough-guy image.”

Is this a replay of the Saturday Night Massacre? There are ways to distinguish Trump’s action from Nixon’s.  But there is a fundamental similarity: In each case the president moved to fire the law enforcement official who posed the greatest danger to his presidency.