No, the Tuesday Afternoon Massacre is not quite the same as the Saturday Night Massacre.
Comey-gate isn’t Watergate.
Donald Trump isn’t Richard Nixon.
And America is not suddenly embroiled in a constitutional crisis. So far, thank goodness, the Constitution seems to be okay.
But the stunning dismissal of FBI Director James Comey should send chills up the spine of every citizen, not only because of what it is — an arrogant abuse of presidential prerogative — but because of what it could portend. If the ill-fated American military adventure in Iraq proved that we still hadn’t learned the lessons of Vietnam, the Trump White House has demonstrated that it flunked Watergate history class. Hell, it hasn’t even cracked open the textbook.
The lesson from Watergate that I retain from my youth was powerful: The president is not above the law. The rules of justice apply to everyone. The resolution of Watergate, with its painful but peaceful transference of power upon the resignation of the president — so far unique in our history — affirmed that our system of government could withstand any assault, even one launched in furtive, corrupt conversations in the Oval Office.
The law isn’t perfect by any means, but it aspires to be neutral and is dependent on being respected and followed. “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” says Deuteronomy 16, nicely summing up the point. We are to pursue justice, not stand in its way. Perhaps the Jewish members of the Trump family/administration can teach the president from the original text, so nothing will get lost in translation.
Trump was within his constitutional authority to jettison Comey for any reason, and the former FBI director’s questionable handling of his agency’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails might have been a fire-worthy offense. But those incidents were so last year, and it beggars belief for an administration so supportive of Comey’s actions around Clinton’s emails to suddenly trot out that rationale now, when Comey’s bureau is knee-deep into investigating possible collusion between hostile foreign power (that would be Russia — despite the bonhomie of Wednesday’s meeting) — and Trump associates. The president himself, contradicting all his White House surrogates, said yesterday that “the Russia thing” was on his mind.
No president since Watergate has dismissed the person leading an investigation bearing on him, though surely some have been tempted. Bill Clinton was the only other modern president to fire an FBI director, but that was for William Sessions’s ethical lapses, and Sessions was replaced with a successor who became a real headache for the White House during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. George W. Bush also tussled with his FBI chief. But neither president, or their predecessors or successors, risked the political backlash he would have incurred if he had given in to his darker impulses and behaved the way that Trump did.
Because they knew that justice, blind as possible, needed to be pursued. That is why, after Watergate, the term of the FBI director was set at 10 years — to specifically insulate him or her from the vagaries of a president’s time in office, which cannot exceed two consecutive four-year terms. So though Trump was technically within his right to fire Comey, he violated accepted norms in doing so.
Those norms aren’t simple niceties, nor are they there to satisfy someone’s idea of political correctness. They are behaviors designed to reinforce the legal structure, expressing the need for the executive to remain distant from and appear uninvolved in the process of justice.
Had this been an isolated incident, there would be less cause for concern. But Trump, as a candidate and now as president, has consistently denigrated the rule of law, those who create it and those who administer it. He repeatedly boasts of being beyond its reach — and to some degree, he’s right. His tax returns remain a mystery. His family businesses continue to trade on his position. There’s the rule of law, and then there’s Trump’s law.
And somehow many of his supporters think it’s just grand that the president doesn’t play by the rules, willfully ignoring the fact that the rules are there to protect them. Indeed, all of us.
The other lesson of Watergate was, of course, that our democratic institutions — especially Congress and the media — were the essential check on Nixon’s abuse of power, exposing, interrogating and prosecuting. Even as Nixon sought to pervert justice, they pursued it. The same must happen today, to prevent this political crisis from turning into a constitutional one.
And there is one person who can make that happen. Luckily, he happens to be a Jewish guy. We join a growing chorus calling on deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein to do the right thing and appoint a special counsel independent of the White House to properly and scrupulously investigate this administration. There is no time to lose. To quote another Jewish text, Pirkei Avot, known as Ethics of the Fathers: “the sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.” The president will learn that lesson, one way or another.
Contact Jane Eisner at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.