WASHINGTON — President Trump’s firing of FBI chief James Comey this week has caused widespread concern among Republicans, even those who defend his right to dismiss the FBI director and downplay concerns about Trump’s connections to Russia and Russian meddling in the presidential election.
Republicans who want to see Trump pass significant legislation worry that he has gravely damaged his chances of doing so and further endangered the House majority.
There is also a deeper concern that even if Trump’s connections to Russia prove inconsequential, his actions this week are part of an ongoing pattern of erratic behavior that undermines democratic stability and the rule of law.
At the very least, Trump backers are disappointed that the president’s series of self-inflicted political wounds have slowed his momentum.
“We are distracted and winning more slowly than I would like,” said Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform.
But Norquist said that Republicans are “driving policy” in the direction he likes, citing the appointment of judges across the federal bench as well as nominees to a broad swath of federal agencies. “And tax cuts are moving forward,” he said.
Henry Barbour, one of three Republican National Committee members from Mississippi, agreed that “if the president and the Republican Congress deliver results that provide Americans better economic and personal security, then this will be a footnote.”
“People just want Washington to deliver results and this is our chance to do that,” he said.
But Trump’s handling of the Comey dismissal — without a clear rationale, a communications plan, or a replacement FBI director in mind — has made that task harder.
“The execution was terrible, as usual. This gang is pretty pathetic at this kind of stuff,” said John Feehery, a former House leadership aide, who added that he was “not concerned about firing Comey.”
The mood of other Republicans — mostly those who didn’t want to be quoted by name — was far more dire. “My hope is fading by the day. The Comey firing is potentially fatal to Trump’s agenda, if not his entire presidency,” said a former top aide to a Republican presidential candidate. “[It’s] not only because it makes the investigations a much bigger problem for the White House, but because it exposes a level of incompetence and naiveté inside the Oval Office.”
A prominent conservative policy adviser said he was worried that “this sucks up all of the oxygen that might have been there for any real reforms in areas like tax and health care policy.”
“It interferes with the priorities that mainstream conservatives care about. And that, frankly, is the only reason that the president still has even tepid support from a lot of Republicans I know: the possibility that we can get some big things done,” the policy adviser said. “That seems to be diminishing with each passing day.”
Politically, the Comey firing has fired up an already inflamed Democratic base. Democrats were not inclined to be helpful to Trump in his attempts to work with a Republican-controlled Congress to pass big-ticket items, given the mood of the Democratic base, which is hungry for aggressive opposition, and Trump’s constant provocations of Democrats.
One Republican consultant based in an early primary state said that “this will only end well if they appoint a rock-solid, unassailable, respected replacement.”
“If they make a great selection, it just confuses the left’s ineffective, overly distraught, world-is-ending reaction to all things Trump,” the campaign operative said. “Otherwise, it will distract from all things planned for congressional action and make everything in D.C. a toxic mess this cycle.”
If Republicans cannot pass legislation on health care and tax reform in the next several months, then their base will be deflated and discouraged. That, combined with a motivated left, could be the perfect storm that worries Republican campaign experts the most.
A former state party chairman said that “at best, Trump’s gut instinct to fire Comey gives the Democrats ample ammunition to gum up his agenda and take Congress in 2018.”
“At worst, this White House is attempting to derail an active FBI investigation. Either scenario is not going to end well,” the former state chairman said. “I keep thinking it can’t get any worse and then it does. This is not a normal president. These are not normal times.”
Many on the right think much of the media’s Comey coverage has been too breathless, since there is, as yet, no proof of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
“[The] fallout is a media tempest in a teapot,” Feehery said.
But even if Trump’s campaign did not cooperate with Russian meddling, then Trump’s reasons for firing his FBI director are still disturbing to many. Press reports indicate that Trump was simply piqued that Comey wasn’t sufficiently personally loyal to him.
In the picture that emerges from many accounts, Comey’s pressing forward with an investigation into the Russian role in the election undermined, in Trump’s eyes, his own legitimacy as president. Trump is reported to have been angered that Comey publicly rebutted his unsubstantiated claim in early March that former President Obama had arranged for a government wiretap of Trump Tower during the election.
Trump added credence to the idea that he personally resented the FBI director when he called Comey a “showboat” in an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt that aired Thursday.
Several Republicans expressed concerns privately that echoed what Bob Bauer, a former White House counsel for Obama, wrote publicly on Thursday.
“The Administration, in short, has shown little regard for thoughtful process in law enforcement that is key to the maintenance of the integrity of the legal system, and of public confidence,” Bauer wrote at the Lawfare Blog.
A former Senate Republican chief of staff who said the Russian probe so far has been “kind of a bust” was most upset by the surreal ways in which the firing unfolded. Trump dispatched his own longtime personal bodyguard to the FBI with the official dismissal papers, but never informed Comey himself. The FBI director learned the news through media reports on TV as he spoke to FBI personnel in Los Angeles.
White House aides scrambled to defend the decision late Tuesday night, having expected it to go over without too much controversy. The White House somehow managed to time the firing for the evening before Trump was scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The White House barred American reporters from that meeting but allowed a Russian state-sponsored news photographer in.
Trump was also photographed at a Wednesday meeting with Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state under President Richard Nixon, whose presence in the Oval Office encouraged comparisons between Trump’s firing of Comey and the Watergate scandal that culminated in Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
“The incompetence is the worst part of it. It’s all bad for the Republic. We have a president who is incompetent. It’s just stupidity,” said a former chief of staff to a Republican senator.
Trump’s lack of grounding in anything outside his own ego remains the core concern for many. “I think it all suggests exactly the impulsiveness and recklessness I was concerned about. In a way, it is the most dangerous signal about him since he was inaugurated,” said one influential D.C. think tank conservative.
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