I have to hand it to the Democrats; they had a good week.
They believe in many conspiracy theories, including the humdinger that FBI Director — I mean, former Director — Jim Comey’s intervention in the last days of the presidential election swung just enough votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to deny Hillary Clinton her slam-dunk legacy as the head of the White House’s “frequent flyer” travel office.
Many Democrats will never accept the legitimacy of President Trump, so they have a nationwide movement to collectively put their heads under the covers. Jim Comey is the Benedict Arnold in their progressive revolution, and all expected Comey to be dismissed from his job right after Secretary Clinton raised her right hand. The Democrats benefited twice from the most tumultuous week in U.S. politics that I can recall, at least since the week before: Comey was sacked; and Trump was pillaged by the swamp.
Oftentimes in politics facts matter less than atmospherics. Donald Trump made the right decision in firing Jim Comey. The most compelling reason is that Comey had become a lightning rod: hated by Clinton supporters, distrusted by Bush alumni. Comey convinced the Bush administration with a wink and a nod he was with them, followed by a raised fist to team Obama that he was reliable to their cause. In the end, the only cause to which Comey commits is his own.
I have no doubt that Comey is a talented lawyer who desires to execute well in any task. His fatal flaw is that his legal abilities are accompanied with a smooth salesman-like style that is good enough to fool many but obvious enough that some see through both it and him.
I met Jim Comey during the Bush 43 administration. He was attempting to join the Justice Department. During that presidency we had a regimented personnel process that included input from a cabinet secretary, the White House personnel office and political office. Each office had a role to play to make sure appointees were capable, a good fit for the job, agreed with the president’s agenda and would be loyal. President Bush wanted appointees who would be able to work well with the cabinet head but ultimately work for the president’s agenda.
The White House was willing to collaborate with the given secretary but unwilling to rubber-stamp any cabinet head. However, the White House also realized that jamming in personnel over agency objections could result in an unhappy White House loyalist, isolated from any important decisions within the agency. The motto was often repeated: We will do it with you, not do it to you.
Jim Comey entered this process and knew he had to convince reluctant Bush loyalists that he was a Republican or, at least, a loyal Bush supporter. After associates checked around on his political background, I felt like the old game show host who faced three people claiming to be the same person and had to ask for the real person to stand up. My recollection is that Jim Comey was relatively well-liked and highly competent. Many felt he was quite conservative in his political approach, others said he was a discreet left-winger who was simply telling the White House what it wanted to hear.
I knew one thing for sure: If Jim Comey came into the administration he would probably rise due to his impressive legal abilities and I would never be sure that he had the president’s best interests at heart.
We all know how the story ended. Comey was elevated to be deputy attorney general and ended up playing an important role in a major constitutional crisis. Some say he was a hero who followed his conscience; others believe he was always looking out for his reputation and was never willing to put his job before his own career ambitions.
What’s clear is that Jim Comey was a careful lawyer but a dutiful master of his own image. His ambitions were rewarded by President Obama when he was installed at the FBI.
Obama and Comey almost made it all the way to the end of Obama’s term without having a potential political conflict affect their collaboration. That was a major accomplishment considering the abuses carried on by Obama administration: Running a program to spy on adversarial reporters; using the IRS to persecute political opponents in Tea Party nonprofits; overseeing a sloppy program of arming violent criminals along the border; orchestrating a cover-up to blame a YouTube video for the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya; and of course the scandals, wrapped in abuse and surrounded by law breaking, concerning the server, emails and smartphones of former-Secretary Clinton and her enablers.
All of these scandals were managed without the selection of a special prosecutor, without anyone being charged with wrongdoing and without any serious political consequences to President Obama.
The reputations of Clinton and Comey were destroyed due to Clinton’s law breaking and deception and Comey’s apparent desire to be dutiful to the politics of Obama. That was until he decided that his own brand was being tarnished, and so lurched out with the now-infamous “Comey letter.”
Like so many things with President Trump, he made the right decision to ax Comey, but the turbulence and timing caused him to endure a withering week in the press and gave some additional life to a tired, manufactured scandal.
There are several critical steps Trump needs to take to finally put all the Russia-influence talk to bed. The president needs to select an FBI director who is beyond reproach and independent of all political influences. He needs to continue to cooperate with the investigations about Russia. Finally, the president needs to take stock of how these decisions can be rolled out more smoothly.
The president was elected over six months ago. He has reached a critical moment in the organization of his administration. He has been able to work with his team and see what is working and what is not. He has surrounded himself with good and capable people. Each member of the White House staff will privately admit that they do not always operate as a team, nor is the staff operating in a collaborative enough way that allows the president and vice president to make the very best decisions.
There is plenty of time to tighten up the processes and fill the gaps, but their window is beginning to close. The president is a true leader and at these moments part of leadership is also looking at ways the person at the top can up his game or better showcase his abilities.
Donald Trump is a shrewd political actor. He saw through Comey when others were charmed. He has a cabinet filled with firepower. He has real talent it the West Wing. But the time to organize for success is now, so that in the final quarter of the year we can all celebrate at signing ceremonies fulfilling the president’s big promises and maybe even be put a robe on another Trump Supreme Court pick.
The stakes are, you might say, huge.
Matt Schlapp is chairman of the American Conservative Union and CPAC. He was the White House political director to former President George W. Bush. Follow him on Twitter @mschlapp.