The “Russiagate” scandal that has tailed the Trump administration since his election is once again front and center. The dismissal of FBI director James Comey added fuel to the debate about Russian interference in US elections and Trump’s relationship with the Russian government. Trump seeks to demonstrate political strength and set limits for the FBI, who has been a thorn in his side since Comey’s very public statements about investigating the Trump team’s interactions with Russian government. This unprecedented move has already sent shock waves throughout Washington and further weakens the Trump administration who finds itself under constant attack.
In response to the firing, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper proclaimed that US institutions are “under assault.” John McCain said that “this is not a good thing for America,” and Elizabeth Warren was “very disturbed” by Trump’s subsequent tweets. Although the firing has been described as “Nixonian”, even Richard Nixon did not fire the FBI director, as the Nixon Library pointed out via tweet. Rather, Nixon instructed the Attorney General to fire the special prosecutor, which he was able to do only after the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General refused to do so.
FUN FACT: President Nixon never fired the Director of the FBI #FBIDirector #notNixonian pic.twitter.com/PatArKOZlk
— RichardNixonLibrary (@NixonLibrary) May 9, 2017
The political circus created around the Comey firing is far flung from the problems of everyday people, placing the spotlight on one of America’s most repressive institutions: the FBI. In all likelihood, Trump fired Comey because of the Russia investigation and because of the public announcement of the inquiry. As Trump would say, Comey is a “showboat”. The Democrats were among the first to argue against Comey, claiming that he “mishandled” the Clinton investigation. Now, they are tossing aside their own allegations and are vigorously denouncing Trump’s action as anti-democratic and totalitarian. While Trump’s firing of Comey is certainly a power grab, it reeks of hypocrisy to denounce Trump’s move as anti-democratic without denouncing one of the most powerful and reactionary institutions in the United States — the FBI. All in all, this political back and forth exhibits major tensions among the American ruling class– tensions that the Trump administration is unable to solve.
Trump’s Power Grab
On the campaign trail, it seemed clear that Trump intended to foster a closer relationship with Russia, as exemplified by his policy on Syria. Despite the accusations about collusion with Russia after Clinton’s campaign emails were leaked, Trump stacked his cabinet with many who share interests with the Russian government. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson won the Russian Order of Friendship Award in 2013 and sought business contracts with them when he was the chief executive of Exxon Mobil. Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, met Russia’s ambassador to the United States twice while Trump was campaigning for President. Finally, Michael Flynn, the former National Security Advisor, is still under investigation for his ties to Russia. He was fired after lying about his meeting with the Ambassador, but that was not the end of the Flynn controversy; not only did Sally Yates testify that she warned Trump about Flynn’s lies, but Flynn failed to list payments in Trump’s financial disclosure forms. from groups with strong ties to Russia. The Trump-Russia scandal is being investigated by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and also by the FBI. Paul Manafort, a former advisor to the Trump campaign, is also being investigated.
While on the campaign trail, Trump applauded Comey’s investigation into the Clinton emails. However, since taking office, Trump has had a far less amicable relationship with the FBI director — hardly surprising since Comey publicly testified that the Trump administration was under examination for possible collusion with Russia, raising the potential for impeachment proceedings against Trump. Tensions also rose when Comey publicly contradicted the President’s claim that he was wiretapped by the Obama administration. Only a few days ago, Comey requested more funding to continue the investigation into Russian interference in the US election.
Comey is the second FBI Director ever to be fired. Initially, the Trump administration said that the President had merely accepted the recommendations of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and that the firing was a result of Comey’s poor handling of the Clinton email case. This is, of course, a laughable excuse as both Trump and Sessions had applauded Comey’s handling of the case during the campaign. Yet this was the explanation given in the letter to Comey, echoed by the Trump team on television.
After a whirlwind of speculation and chaos, Trump himself had to conduct an exclusive interview and put all this “fake news” (coming from the White House itself) to an end. He stated that he himself had made the decision regardless of any recommendations, contradicting everything previously states by his team and in his own letter.
Trump’s firing of the man responsible for investigating him reveals his utter disregard for appearances in this unprecedented political move. Despite Trump’s attempts, he has not been allowed to move forward with any policies that fall too far from the norm. Firing Comey demonstrates that Trump will move forward with executive orders that completely fail to observe the traditional order and institutions of American government. In this case, unlike the Muslim Ban, there isn’t much anyone can do to stop the Comey firing. This form of Bonapartism places Trump above the rule of law, or at least the rule of tradition, and above the different sectors of government, sending the message that Trump can and will do whatever he wants.
Yet, this does not come without a political cost. Trump’s approval ratings are at historic lows for a President in his first few months. He stands at 39% approval, while Obama held an approval rating in the mid 60’s in his first few months and George W. Bush’s approval stood at 56%. After the health care victory in the House of Representatives, the focus is once again on Trump’s Russia connection, which erodes what little political capital he may have won by actually passing a law through the House of Representatives. According to a NBC-WSJ poll , only 29% of Americans approve of the Comey firing. For the past week, Republicans have had to confront crowds of people who are angry about the healthcare law at town hall meetings around the country. They must now face additional questions about Trump, Russia and the FBI. The Democrats stand poised to reap the benefits of Trump’s negative press.
The Democrats: A Contradictory Position
The Democrats are now in a contradictory position. On the one hand, they have been criticizing Comey, bolstering Clinton’s claim that his investigation lost her the election. In this way, the Democrats set the stage for Comey’s firing. On the other hand, they want the investigation into Trump’s activities to continue. One of the most hypocritical figures in this situation is Democratic congressperson Steve Cohen who, not too long ago, called for Comey to resign amid the Clinton investigation and is now denouncing Trump’s firing.
When the Democrats are not blaming Comey’s investigation into the Clinton emails for their electoral failure, they are blaming the Russians for leaking emails. This, too, reeks of hypocrisy given the innumerable times the US has interfered in foreign elections — often engaging in activities far more destructive than hacking computers. The US history of backing coups and ousting leaders is quite extensive — Clinton herself backed a military coup in Honduras.
The Comey firing bolsters the Democrats’ “Resist Trump” strategy, which can be summed up as capitalizing on Trump’s countless fiascos. It means voting against Trump’s administrative measures, giving speeches against him in front of cameras, and patiently waiting for the midterm elections. The more irrational Trump’s actions and the more chaotic the rollout of his plans, the more the Democrats believe they can win a majority in Congress without making even basic aesthetic changes to their politics.
The FBI is Our Enemy.
The Democrats, like their Republican counterparts, seek to safeguard the “credibility” of the FBI. No one from either party of the capitalist regime argues against the very existence of the organization which is known for, among other things, the espionage, infiltration, and repression of resistance movements. The Democrats again show that their only commitment is to the interests of the American ruling class.There may be disagreement about which individual should head the FBI, and there may be disagreement about specific actions, but Democrats and Republicans are united in defending one of the most repressive institutions in US government — an institution shrouded in secrets that has been used to murder and dismantle left movements throughout US history.
Formed by Teddy Roosevelt without Congressional approval, the FBI began spying on and persecuting socialists soon after its formation in 1908. The creation of the FBI was a reaction to the huge labor uprisings that swept the nation in the years prior. For example, in 1904, there were four thousand strikes in the US. After the FBI’s creation, there were swift and coordinated attacks on labor leaders, anarchists, and socialists who organized and supported strikes and other mobilizations. There were raids of IWW offices, the “slacker raids”, the “Palmer raids”, and countless unnamed and unknown attacks with the goal of demolishing the left. The FBI also worked systematically to dismantle the organizations that fought for the rights of Black people, including the NAACP, SNCC, and the Black Panthers. From sending Martin Luther King Jr. a letter encouraging his suicide to actually killing Fred Hampton, the FBI was arguably one of the primary obstacles to the organization of Black people for their liberation.
James Comey’s parting letter described the FBI as a “rock of competence, honesty, and independence.” Certainly the FBI is independent of any oversight by the people and of the laws that are supposed to keep other sectors of government in check. The FBI may also be relatively independent of the Trump administration, but it defends the interests of the capitalist class through sabotage, imprisonment, and murder. Comey then states that the FBI is “that rock for America,” and he is correct — the FBI acts as the bedrock of American capitalism, annihilating all those who oppose it.
A Threat to American Democracy?
Fareed Zakaria began his show stating, “Donald Trump, in much of his rhetoric and many of his actions, poses a danger to American democracy… Our task is, quite simply, to keep alive the spirit of American democracy.” It is not necessary to downplay the unprecedented power grab represented by Trump’s firing of Comey in order to point out that there is a long way to go between firing the director of the FBI and the end of American “democracy.” An attack to the FBI is not a violation of democracy, as the FBI is as repressive and anti-democratic as it gets.
What it does illustrate is that Trump is fighting back against his capitalist opposition. The firing of Comey and the hypocritical position of the Democratic Party demonstrate divisions within the American ruling class. Firing Comey is just that: infighting between different capitalist sectors. Trump wants an FBI director he can control– ideally one that won’t investigate him, and certainly one that won’t make public announcements about that investigation. If he is actually successful in consolidating more political power, it will be in order to further attack the rights of the working class and oppressed. The resistance against Trump can’t waste a second placing hopes and expectations in the hands of corrupt and murderous institutions like the FBI or the Democratic party. The in-fighting between those at the top could lead to an upsurge from below, but the workers and oppressed can only place their trust in their own strength.