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The Mistake That May Haunt Trump Forever

A year ago, he fired James Comey—and permanently damaged his presidency.

Andrew Harrer/Pool/Getty Images

Human memory tends to perceive minor events as brief and major events as lasting, which warps our perception of time’s passage. Perhaps that’s why it feels like it’s been an eternity since President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, when in fact it happened just a year ago today.

The significance of Comey’s ouster was clear when it happened. What the public learned in the days and weeks that followed only confirmed its importance. Though  Trump is through only a third of his first term, Comey’s firing looks to be the signature mistake of his presidency, akin to Bill Clinton declaring he “did not have sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky or George W. Bush prematurely declaring “mission accomplished” in Iraq.

Many observers, including me, have written about what Trump’s decision and its aftermath meant for American democracy and the rule of law. Not since Richard Nixon during the Watergate crisis had a president so brazenly interfered in a federal investigation into himself and his associates. But Comey’s firing also came with tremendous costs to Trump—to his family, his allies, his presidency, and ultimately himself. Those costs may be far more important in the long run.

Start with the obvious legal consequences. Trump spent his first months in office pressuring Comey to do two things: drop an investigation into one of Trump’s top political allies, and prematurely declare the president himself wasn’t under investigation for collusion with Russia. Comey rebuffed him. After Trump fired Comey and then publicly threatened to release tapes of their conversations, Comey responded by leaking memos that detailed Trump’s efforts. Those revelations effectively forced Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the Russia investigation.

Trump’s surreptitious efforts to exonerate himself and spare a political ally from prosecution failed spectacularly. Flynn, as part of a plea bargain with Mueller, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in December. What’s more, the episode deepened the president’s legal peril. Top Justice Department and FBI officials remain silent about whether they’ve found evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to undermine Hillary Clinton, but if nothing else, Mueller could build a solid case that Comey’s firing amounted to obstruction of justice—an impeachable offense.

The political impact is harder to gauge. The president’s approval ratings noticeably dropped after he fired Comey, and haven’t fluctuated that much since then: Between 36 and 41 percent of Americans say they approve of the job he’s doing, while 52 to 57 percent of Americans say they disapprove. That suggests that most people are already locked into their views of Trump, no matter what he does on a day-to-day basis. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver noted on Tuesday that Nixon also once enjoyed stability in the polls—until Watergate caught fire and brought his numbers crashing down.

Trump’s view that the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt” isn’t shared by most Americans. A Washington Post/ABC News poll last month found that 69 percent of Americans support Mueller’s inquiry. Subsequent polling has shown a slight dip in support since then, but it’s not clear yet whether this is a fleeting blip or a broader trend. If Mueller’s probe turns up damning evidence against the president, it’s possible that Trump’s numbers could crater.

Mueller’s leadership of the Russia investigation is distinguished by its intensity and autonomy. The former FBI director assembled what’s widely considered to be an all-star team of prosecutors and attorneys, many of whom have experienced with complex federal investigations and white-collar crime. He also moved aggressively to bring indictments against key figures of Trump’s inner circle like Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn.

Those efforts are taking a toll. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan appear likely to indict Trump’s longtime legal fixer Michael Cohen after a referral from Mueller’s office. Family members like Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. are under scrutiny for their interactions with Russian officials in 2016. Many of Trump’s aides and confidants have been questioned by the special counsel’s office. Trump’s relationship with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one of his strongest supporters, appears to be beyond repair after Sessions recused himself from the investigation. Flynn, another close campaign-era ally, is now cooperating with Mueller.

Lower-level staff aren’t spared from the effects either. A high-stakes federal investigation involving the White House is a grueling experience for anyone caught up in it. Experienced legal representation, for example, can cost tens of thousands of dollars, even for those who don’t eventually face criminal charges. (Trump reportedly pledged at least $430,000 toward staffers’ legal fees last October.) The ordeal is also personally draining. There’s already a journalistic cottage industry of anonymous White House staffers describing their demoralization to reporters with each new development.

Did it have to be like this? Future historians will be in a better position to judge where the Russia investigation stood when Trump fired Comey, and how much that decision changed its trajectory. But a turning point is always irresistible to ponder. What if the president hadn’t fired the FBI director one year ago? What if May 9, 2017, had played out like any other day in the Trump administration?

Comey would almost certainly still be the FBI director right now. His memos—and their damning accounts of Trump’s efforts to manipulate the Russia investigation—would likely remain a closely guarded secret. Mueller would still be at WilmerHale, the prestigious law firm where he oversaw less dramatic inquiries like the NFL’s suspension of Ray Rice. Public confidence in the FBI wouldn’t have plunged without Trump’s campaign to delegitimize federal law enforcement. The Justice Department’s independence would be less threatened, at least publicly.

Trump might also have had a better first year of his presidency. He wouldn’t be tweeting every morning about witch hunts and collusion, at least (though he’d still be tweeting). And while his poll numbers might have stayed the same, the Russia investigation might not have become the lightning rod that’s energized Democrats and demoralized Republicans. Yes, the 2018 midterms were always going to be tough for the GOP. But they would’ve been easier without the threat of more indictments from Mueller between now and Election Day.

What about legal danger? Without Comey’s removal, Trump wouldn’t be facing obstruction-of-justice questions and the risk of impeachment. The Russia investigation would have continued in a less intense form. The president’s family members might have avoided intense scrutiny from Mueller’s team. Cohen, who knows more about Trump’s legal and business dealings than almost anyone, maybe wouldn’t be facing for an imminent federal indictment. That might have spared him (and maybe the president) from questions about money laundering that are slowly starting to surface.

Experts and analysts spent the last year wondering how to contain the damage that Comey’s firing has done to the justice system. But perhaps the most effective safeguard is the example Trump has set for his successors. If civic virtue, political norms, or personal integrity don’t compel future presidents to uphold the rule of law, then maybe a simpler reason will suffice: It’s too costly not to.