n August 7, 1974, a trio of Republican politicians made a sombre journey from Capitol Hill to the White House. Senators Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott and Representative John Rhodes had dedicated their professional lives to the conservative movement and to the electoral fortunes of the Republican Party. But, on this occasion, they chose to put the interests of their country ahead of the partisan concerns of the G.O.P. They had come to level with Richard Nixon, their fellow-Republican and the President of the United States. The three men told Nixon that the wounds of Watergate had finally cut too deep. His party was abandoning him. It was time for the President to go. He announced his resignation the next day.
The great question in politics today is when, or whether, any Republican will undertake a similar trip to the White House of Donald Trump. Throughout a hundred-plus days, Trump has proved himself temperamentally and intellectually unfit for the Presidency. Following the lamentable campaign of 2016, people surely had modest expectations for the manner in which Trump would conduct himself in office, but his belligerence and his mendacity have been astonishing even by his standards. Still, an undignified Twitter feed, albeit one that originates in the Oval Office, is just a national embarrassment, not a constitutional crisis.
The firing of James Comey, the F.B.I. director, on the other hand, represents not only an abuse of language but an abuse of power. In 1976, Congress, recognizing the political sensitivity of the F.B.I. post, set the director’s term at ten years. This act was partly intended to preclude lengthy tenures like J. Edgar Hoover’s forty-seven-year reign, but also to provide the director with a measure of independence from the incumbent Administration. The law did allow the President to remove the director, but the prevailing norm called for this power to be used sparingly. Before Comey, only one director had been fired, in 1993, when President Clinton dismissed William Sessions for ethical lapses—a decision that generated little dissent.
On Tuesday night, when the news of the firing broke, Administration officials announced that the President had acted, at least in part, because Comey, in the course of clearing Hillary Clinton in last year’s e-mail controversy, had made excessively harsh public comments about her. This was patently absurd; Trump had spent the fall quoting and embracing Comey’s criticisms. Later in the week, Trump contradicted his subordinates’ explanation, telling Lester Holt, of NBC, that he had fired Comey because he was “a showboat” and “a grandstander” (coming from Trump, that sounded more like a projection than like a slight) and because Comey’s leadership had left the F.B.I. “in turmoil,” which it is not.
In fact, during the interview with Holt, Trump all but acknowledged that he had fired Comey because the director had made sure that the Bureau continued to investigate the ties between Trump’s campaign and the efforts by the Russian government and its allies to hand the election to him. This is exactly the kind of investigation that requires the F.B.I. director to have independence; Trump’s short-circuiting of the probe, with Comey’s dismissal, is a grave abuse of Presidential power. The interference in an F.B.I. investigation replicates, with chilling precision, another part of the Watergate story. On June 23, 1972, six days after individuals associated with Nixon’s campaign broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, the President and his aide H. R. Haldeman discussed a plan to stop an F.B.I. investigation into the matter. As captured on a White House tape, Nixon told Haldeman that C.I.A. officials “should call the F.B.I. in and say that we wish for the country, don’t go any further into this case—period!” Yet there is one important difference between Nixon’s and Trump’s obstruction of the F.B.I. Nixon had the decency, or at least the deviousness, to do it in secret. Trump, with characteristic brazenness, is conducting his coverup in full view of the public.