When I first started thinking about this column, I was going to write about the testimony of former acting attorney general Sally Yates and former director of national intelligence James Clapper, Jr. before the Senate on Monday, May 8, 2017. I was going to discuss the details of Ms. Yates’s reports to White House counsel Don McGhan about the activities of Michael Flynn, who briefly served as Trump’s national security chief until ousted as a liar based on the information given to the White House. Ms. Yates’s testimony focused public attention on the office of White House counsel, given that it took 18 days and a public leak to remove the Russian “compromised” Mr. Flynn. It raised important questions and issues, but they were quickly covered by The New York Times.
But these days news moves fast. On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, as everyone was digesting the dramatic testimony of Sally Yates, new news broke that Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey. Indeed, Comey himself would learn of his firing from news accounts from CNN, on a television screen at the FBI’s field office in Los Angeles, announcing his removal as he was about to give a speech to FBI recruits.
Soon the press was reporting the president had arranged for the termination letter to be hand delivered from the White House to Comey, only to discover he was out of town, so the letter may have been in the hands of the media even before it was read by Comey. The letter was printed in full on the front page above the fold of The New York Times late on May 9, for the Wednesday, May 10, 2017 edition with a banner headline: Trump Fires Comey Amid Russian Inquiry.
It was the headline and story below Trump’s letter that has kept me very busy all week: President Lands a Punch, and Many Hear Echoes of Watergate. While I am always an active consumer of news, I don’t spend most weeks talking with several dozen news reporters and television news producers as I did this week. As a result, I found myself following this story more closely than I follow most because I was being asked to talk about it on television and explain its historical context. What I noticed in following Politico, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal along with CNN and MSNBC, while catching occasional network news organizations coverage, is the extraordinary journalism that is driving the news today.
It is clearly based on conversations with reporters, and the work that they are producing, that Donald Trump’s presidency has taken American journalism to a higher level. Today, journalism is at the level of, if not better than, the height of Watergate. Based on my conversations with many print reporters and television producers, I know they fully appreciate that Donald Trump’s presidency is a threat to our democracy. Not only are they digging for what is happening, but they are examining why it is happening, and what else may happen. They want to know whether Trump’s behavior is worse or not as bad as Nixon’s, which is why they call me. Most journalists realize their work—both individually and collectively—often makes them part of the story. I watched this symbiotic relationship influence Nixon’s handling of Watergate four decades ago, and it is happening again. It is one of the reasons news stories move so quickly today. The Comey firing story is a perfect example.
The story broke and soon the news media had the letter requesting Comey’s resignation. But rather than accept Trump’s explanation of the firing—which was based on an attached letter from the new deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein and critical of FBI Director Comey’s handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state—reporters kept digging. Indeed, the effort of Trump and his White House to make the FBI’s Clinton email investigation the basis for firing Comey was ludicrous on its face. That investigation helped elect Trump, and he had exploited it throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton, and many who have analyzed the 2016 election, believe Comey’s behavior cost Hillary the win.
Nonetheless, the Trump White House insisted this was the reason Comey had been fired. Press Secretary Sean Spicer and his deputy Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeatedly gave this as the explanation to the press. The White House dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to Capitol Hill, where he both privately and publicly explained that the president fired Comey because of Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein’s letter. Trump, who called several senators, gave this as the reason for his actions. But the press was openly doubting in both print and television reporting. To make the story very short, when Trump realized the news media was not buying his explanation (only he seems to not understand that his continuous lying about everything has given him zero credibility about anything), he arranged an interview himself with NBC News anchor Lester Holt.
Lester Holt was fully prepared, and asked all the key questions. It was a remarkable session for Trump admitted he did not fire Comey because of Rosenstein’s letter (the new deputy attorney general had also threatened to resign if they falsely pinned Comey’s firing on him, because the media had been pressing him as well), rather Trump said he had planned to fire Comey all along. Holt also asked him why he added to the letter firing Comey the following: “…I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation….” Trump explained that Comey had come to dinner at the White House to keep his job as director, and told Trump during their visit that he was not under investigation relating to Russia, and then on two more occasions during telephone conversations.
But Trump also told Holt his reason for firing Comey, “In fact, when I decided to just do it [referring to firing Comey], I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’” It was an extraordinary admission. First, it undercut his staff and Vice President Pence’s explanation. Secondly, it was an admission that he had fired Comey to obstruct the Russia investigation.
Press coverage had caused Trump to try to recast the Comey firing, but as he undoubtedly knows now, he was too candid, he claimed he did it with the intent to obstruct the Russia investigation. Lester Holt knew when to say nothing, and allowed Trump to hang himself. Meanwhile, the press has flushed out the fact the Comey did not seek a dinner at the White House to keep his job, rather Trump summoned him, and insisted on their meeting, notwithstanding the fact Comey did not want the meeting. And Comey never told Trump he was not subject to the Russia investigation.
The story of Trump’s firing FBI Director Comey is still reverberating, and will not come to rest anytime soon. The White House tried to fool everyone but has fooled no one because of the media’s vigilance. This is just one of many such stories because American journalism has collectively risen to the challenge the Trump presidency has created. Donald Trump is a real threat to American democracy. While his supporters say they wanted to shake things up by voting for him, I doubt they wanted to undo our democracy. Yet with his incompetence, his everything-is-all-about-me narcissism, and his authoritarian personality, he is a danger – and his constitutional co-equals in the Republican-controlled Congress are unwilling to check or balance his refusal to play by the rules, norms, and traditions that have guided prior presidents. The courts will not have jurisdiction over many of his actions, which leaves the news media as the only entity that can address all of his actions.
After a week of broad and frequent interaction with reporters and producers, providing something of a peek behind the finished product published and broadcast day in and day out, I feel greatly reassured. Journalism has never been better, and notwithstanding the business transition in which it exists because of the internet, the substance of journalism has never been better. This is the one good thing Trump’s presidency has produced. We must all be thankful for it. Subscribe to one or more news outlet to support democracy!