Commentary: Donald Trump's abuse of power

With former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (L) at his side, U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters after his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., May 10, 2017.

Kevin Lamarque

Let's try to square the following five propositions, all of which are at least probably correct:

1. James Comey deserved to be fired. This is the argument much of the conservative commentariat is making right now, and one we heard from Democrats as recently as November. The gist is basically that Comey played a bad hand badly. He became a political figure, may have affected the outcome of the last election, has a penchant for grandstanding, and had lost the support of Americans both within and without Washington.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's case for Comey's dismissal appears solid. It all seems perfectly legal and constitutional. And it may prove to be a good thing for both the Bureau and the country at large.

2. Donald Trump fired Comey for the wrong reasons. Does anyone really believe that the president fired Comey for his treatment of Hillary Clinton? 

Motives matter, and Mr. Trump clearly wanted Comey to go for reasons relating to the Russia investigation. This is not to imply that that the investigation will necessarily reveal any law-breaking on Trump's part. But, as his Tuesday letter to Comey makes clear, the subject was clearly at the forefront of the president's mind when it came to the FBI director. He wanted Comey to publicly clear him, and Comey, for whatever reason, would not. 

It's true that the FBI director serves at the pleasure of the president – an issue we might want to revisit in the future. He can be fired without cause. But sacking an investigator because you don't like the investigation and then misleading the public about it, which is what it seems Trump did here, is more than a breach of norms; it's an abuse of power. 

3. The White House handled this terribly. Only once in the 113-year history of the FBI has a director been fired. His name was William Sessions (no relation to our current Attorney General), and when Bill Clinton fired him in 1993, his White House knew how to handle it.

Clinton announced Sessions' firing at a press conference, while President Trump was nowhere to be found Tuesday night. Clinton also already had a successor lined up, which he announced the next day. 

Meanwhile, the Trump administration didn't line up anyone to immediately make its case, eventually bringing out only the deputy press secretary, and hadn't even settled on an interim FBI director. How anyone thought this would work is, by itself, shocking.

Sessions' dismissal was also a lot more clear cut than Comey's in that he had been faulted in an ethics report and had overseen the Bureau's botched siege at Ruby Ridge. He had no defenders. Comey, for the first time in a while, suddenly has a few, including some Republicans.

So Trump, in his impulsiveness, has given the investigation into his associates' ties to Russia new life. Whatever the merits of Comey's dismissal, how Trump decided to go about it is alarming, and mind-bogglingly maladroit from a political perspective.

4. Still, Trump will likely survive this just fine. Nobody is going to impeach Mr. Trump for sacking James Comey, a guy who Harry Reid implied violated federal law just a few months ago and who, last week, was accused by Hillary Clinton of helping swing the election in Trump's favor.

Yes, some GOP lawmakers are criticizing the president, but the conservative media, which has its antennae more finely attuned to the wants and needs of the Republican base, still has his back. And Comey was so unpopular with Americans as a whole it's hard to imagine many of them manning the barricades in his defense.

Plus, the midterms are still a good 18 months away. Given the pace of news in Trump's America, how many voters do we think will still remember James Comey's name by then?  

5. Comey's replacement must be beyond reproach. Here are some famous last words for you: the Senate, which must confirm the new FBI director, will presumably do its job rather well.

Yes, the troglodytic backbenchers of the GOP caucus would probably vote for any crank or toady Mr. Trump might want to offer up. But we can at least hope against hope that there are enough good Republicans to insist that a nominee be all but unobjectionable. This is essential if the FBI is to regain its reputation as an impartial actor, which is to say it is essential to the maintenance of the rule of law.

Perhaps I'm wrong about this, and we'll soon see Republicans acquiesce to a compromised nominee or Democrats try and torpedo a good one. If this turns out to be the case, then the country is in even worse shape than most of us realize, and the time may have come to buy gold and eat Arby's

When we regain our senses, one of the first things to reform may be how we go about choosing – and dismissing -- our FBI directors. 

  • Will Rahn

    Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital.