Will he get away with it? Admittedly, that could refer to many of President Trump’s activities in office, in his pursuit of office, and elsewhere, but it immediately applies to his summary dismissal of the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, fired with less consideration than Mr Trump might attach to the loss of a good chef.
It was a surprise, not least to Mr Comey. After all, it is to Mr Comey’s unhelpful announcement of a further investigation into her emails that Hillary Clinton attaches blame for her not now occupying the White House. But Mr Comey has, punctiliously, made clear also that the FBI is determined to carry out further investigations into the links between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign. Few believe that this and his sacking are entirely coincidental, if only because Mr Trump could have chosen a new chief for the FBI at the start of his administration.
Yet what Mr Trump has done is perfectly lawful. The FBI is an agency of the executive and responsible to the Attorney General. If the Attorney General, in this case Jeff Sessions, and the President conclude that they’d like a new FBI director, then it is a matter for them. Mr Trump is promising a “better” replacement, but that replacement will require congressional approval (though the dismissal did not). This next stage is the point where the famous checks and balances built into the American system of government can be brought to bear on an overbearing president. If Mr Trump chooses an individual who is obviously going to be overly compliant, then they ought to reject that person; but what if their intentions on the Russia investigation, even after cross-examination by senators, remain unclear? It is difficult to see Congress being able to extract any sort of bankable guarantees for the independence of a man or woman who, indirectly, will work for Donald Trump. Even so, it is their duty to try.
In the end, whether Mr Trump “gets away with it”, and succeeds in stymying the FBI's enquiries into his election campaign, will be less about the constitution and process, and much more about politics. What will determine congressional obstructiveness will be public opinion. How far President Trump can push things will also be down to what the American people think, much more broadly, about the performance of his administration. As Abraham Lincoln once put it: “Public sentiment is everything”, and he had to face the ultimate constitutional struggle. The most famous boss of the FBI, and the longest-serving (38 years) J Edgar Hoover, was simply unsackable. He had built up such a mass of intelligence on the various presidents he worked for, plus their families and staffs, and enjoyed such public prestige that no president or congress could touch him or make him retire, even long after that was due. Appointed by President Coolidge in 1924, only the Almighty, via a heart attack, ended Hoover’s grip on the FBI. Hoover was, thus, a rare example of a public official who could command a more substantial mandate than his chief executive. There have been others – Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve, for example – but most heads of agencies are transient and dispensable. So it is with Mr Comey.
For many the comparison with the Nixon White House has been instructive. In that case, Richard Nixon’s failed efforts to manipulate the CIA and the FBI (post-Hoover), at one stage seeking to get the CIA to prevent the FBI investigation into Watergate, were tantamount to a perversion of justice. His dramatic dismissal of the Watergate special prosecutor has also been cited as an unfortunate precedent for what Mr Trump has been up to. President Nixon did not long survive those attempts to get away with the Watergate affair. And yet that was well into Nixon’s second term, with economic crisis and the failure in Vietnam also looming in the public mind.
By contrast, Mr Trump is new, and still enjoying the benefit of the doubt from many Americans; and how many really think that the Russian hacking is important enough to derail Mr Trump’s efforts to fix the economy and create jobs? Do they think, in short, that any of this will be worth impeaching and toppling Mr Trump for? So far, ugly and squalid though this business is, and one that raises legitimate questions about the independence of law enforcement agencies, neither the American people nor their elected representatives seem to think it worth exercising the ultimate prerogative and going after Mr Trump himself for crimes real or imagined. No doubt there will be some awkward moments during the hearings on the appointment of Mr Comey's successor, but it looks like Trump’ll get away with it.