Sorry, but the Comey Firing Is Not As Bad or Worse Than Watergate

In every presidential administration since Nixon, there’s always a scandal or action by a President that elevates to the level of the Watergate scandal or something worse. It’s almost as if journalists, talking heads, and politicians hope for something so big — their “white whale” so to speak — they can claim the prize of “Bigger Than Watergate” from Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein.

Whether the scandal does or does not rise above that of Watergate usually breaks down along partisan lines, something that’s not unexpected. However, those lines blurred with the arrival of Donald J. Trump.

James Fallows writes in ‘The Atlantic’  of how the Comey firing is “worse” than Watergate and lists reasons as to why. One area where he says the offense of Trump is worse than Nixon is in the “blatancy of the interference.” He writes:

A climactic event of the Watergate saga, the “Saturday Night Massacre” of October 1973, is too complex to lay out in full. (More here.) Its essence was a nearly-last-gasp attempt by Nixon to prevent a special prosecutor from getting full access to the Oval Office tapes whose existence had recently become known.

But even in his stonewalling, Nixon paid lip service to the concepts of due process and check and balances. (His proffered solution was something called the “Stennis compromise,” in which the very conservative Senator John Stennis, from Mississippi, would “listen” personally to the tapes and summarize their content. As it happens, Stennis was famous for being practically deaf.) Nixon wanted to survive and win, but he wanted to act as if he was doing so while sticking to some recognizable rules.

He says Trump maintains zero respect for the rules.

Conservative author and historian, Max Boot, made a similar case in the NY Times:

Mr. Trump himself now links his decision to fire Mr. Comey to his conviction that “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.” The president had previously tried to win from Mr. Comey a pledge of loyalty and assurances that he was not a target of the investigation — both actions that are, in and of themselves, unethical and improper. When Mr. Comey wouldn’t comply, he was canned.

While the president has the authority to fire the F.B.I. director, to do so under these circumstances and for these reasons is a gross violation of the trust citizens place in the president to ensure that the laws “be faithfully executed.” If this is not a prima facie case of obstruction of justice — an impeachable offense — it’s hard to know what is.

Harvard Professor Lawrence Tribe and Washington Post columnist both insist Trump is eligible to be impeached, concluding Comey’s firing is tantamount to obstruction of justice. Joe Scarborough of ‘Morning Joe’ said if Trump gets impeached, the first article will be similar to Richard Nixon, which was obstruction of justice.

Unfortunately, I do not see how any of them get from point A to point B. The contention that Trump’s action is tantamount to obstruction of justice falls flat. Under the law, President Trump had every right to fire James Comey. Comey is a political appointee, who serves at the pleasure of the President. Yes, it is easy to conclude that Trump’s ego, thin skin and constant need for positive reinforcement played a significant role in Comey’s firing. Politically, it stinks to high heaven and only confirms Trump is an impetuous person who rationalizes his behavior in a way that only makes sense to him.

That said, it is not a high crime or misdemeanor.

The comparison between what Trump did with Comey to what Nixon did with special prosecutor Archibald Cox doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The special prosecutor statute stated Nixon only had the authority to fire Cox for dereliction. Nixon wanted Cox fired because the latter wanted access to the taped conversations between Nixon and others in the White House. Nixon then ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. He also resigned. It was Robert Bork, recently sworn in as acting attorney general who fired Cox. Nixon’s action was later ruled illegal by a federal judge.

Comey’s firing did not impede the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Russian influence during the 2016 election and whether or not Trump’s campaign operatives colluded with the Russian government in their efforts. Acting Directo of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, a Comey loyalist, said the investigation continues, unabated.

At some point, Trump may very well go so far as to engage in actions worthy of impeachment. For example, Trump’s threat to Comey on Twitter about “leaks” is worse than his firing of Comey. Considering Trump’s inability to behave rationally, it wouldn’t surprise me if he did do something worthy of impeachment. But as for now, it’s not at the level of Watergate.