Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Comey of errors


After the November US election I agreed with many commentators, who said that Comey really should resign for his failures of judgement or (depending on who you’re listening to) malfeasance with regard to the Clinton email server investigation, that it would provide partisan satisfaction for Democrats for him to be forced out, but that it was essential for the nation for him to stay in office as an independent check on the president’s authoritarian impulses. Some said he has the most secure job in Washington, since Republicans and Democrats both wanted to keep him, albeit for very different reasons.

Apparently not.

We’re used to thinking of scandals as something that will damage the politicians involved if and when they come out, possibly driving them from office. But that’s not always how it works. That isn’t even really the fundamental dynamic. Hidden criminality by people in power locks them in a death struggle with the rule of law and the system of honest democratic politics. Only one can survive. If the politician has weak support, or self-doubt, or respect for democratic norms then it’s like a moon in Jupiter’s gravitation — for all intents and purpose we can just say it’s the massive planet (the constitutional system) acting on the small body. But it can be more like a black hole interacting with a star: Both are perturbed, and until they get close you can’t judge how massive the black hole is.

This is a lesson of Watergate. Increasingly large parts of the federal government were being suborned to concealing the president’s crimes. Many of them — parallel to the current situation — didn’t even know what they were covering up, but once they had started in their own reputations were bound to his. American democracy survived that, but many thought at the time, and many historians still think, that it was a close-run thing.

It may be that Trump would have been willing to lay back and golf his way through his presidency, throwing out occasional ill-tempered tweets to the faithful. But now everything is on the line, and ever more people are implicated, and see their fates bound up with his. Either democracy goes or we do is the thinking at this point.

Clearly Comey has been fired because the investigation was getting too close to serious crimes at the very top. The official explanation — he was fired because his actions were unfair to Clinton — is intentionally ridiculous, and is presumably supposed to implicate the senior officials in the Justice Department, in particular deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who coincidentally is leading the investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

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