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With The Firing Of James Comey, American Democracy Is At Stake

Congressional Republicans must confront whether they are willing to defend a corrupt president, or the institutions of American democracy, writes Steve Almond. Pictured: On Wednesday, May 3, 2017, then-FBI Director James Comey pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. President Donald Trump abruptly fired Comey on May 9. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Congressional Republicans must confront whether they are willing to defend a corrupt president, or the institutions of American democracy, writes Steve Almond. Pictured: On Wednesday, May 3, 2017, then-FBI Director James Comey pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. President Donald Trump abruptly fired Comey on May 9. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

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On Tuesday night, President Trump fired the man charged with investigating whether he, or his campaign staffers, committed treason by colluding with Russian officials during the 2016 election.

The president has the legal authority to fire the FBI director, so long as he provides cause. But his rationale for the move — that James Comey erred in publicly discussing his agency’s investigation of Hillary Clinton — is laughable.

Every time Comey publicly assailed the Democratic nominee on the campaign trail, Trump crowed ecstatically about jailing her. Heck, Comey’s decision to cast aspersions on Clinton, while remaining curiously silent about the ongoing probe of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, is one of the central reasons Trump won the election.

So ask yourself, fellow citizens, which scenario is more likely: that our president developed an overnight intolerance for Comey’s indiscretions? Or that he was beginning to panic that a Comey-led investigation would take down his presidency and that he needed, therefore, to install an FBI director who would do his bidding?

President Donald Trump talks to reporters during a meeting with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office, Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Donald Trump talks to reporters during a meeting with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office, Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Trump’s motives here could not be more transparent. His letter to Comey opens not with a statement of cause for the firing, but the desperate claim that Trump himself is not under investigation. That’s not how an innocent person behaves.

But forget what Trump says. He’s proven himself willing to lie about anything. What matters here is what he’s done.

The question now is whether members of Congress, of both parties, will summon the courage necessary to confront this anti-democratic abuse of power.

As a reminder, Trump already has fired former acting Attorney General Sally Yates. He did so shortly after Yates warned the White House that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn appeared to be lying about his Russia contacts and was potentially vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians. Trump also fired nearly all of the federal prosecutors from the Obama era.

If Republicans choose, once again, to disregard Trump’s reckless power grab, they are further enabling his authoritarian impulses. Just as important, they are thwarting the fundamental American notion that no man — not even the president — is above the law.

For those who choose to remain silent, or offer mealy-mouthed justifications for the president, consider this hypothetical: How would Republicans on the Hill react if a President Hillary Clinton had abruptly fired the FBI director who was leading a far-reaching investigation of her administration? Let’s not delude ourselves. They wouldn’t just call for her impeachment, they would begin the process.

This is the very moment when congressional Republicans must be forced to confront whether they are willing to defend a corrupt president or the institutions of American democracy.

Back in 1974, when then-President Richard Nixon was facing a similarly far-reaching investigation of his administration, Republicans in Congress eventually realized that they couldn’t do both. They sided with democracy.

American citizens, along with the Fourth Estate ... must play a vital role in checking this president’s power.

Trump’s first months in office have been marked by a disturbing pattern: Rather than accepting the constitutional limits on his power, he has flouted them at every turn.

American citizens, along with the Fourth Estate — and whatever federal investigators have yet to be purged — must play a vital role in checking this president’s power.

But Republicans in Congress must also hold Trump accountable to the people he serves. They have the authority to assign an independent special prosecutor with subpoena powers to get to the bottom of the Trump-Russia connections. Based on what that inquiry yields, they also possess the power to initiate the impeachment process. Those who refuse to exercise these powers become part of the cover-up.

If ethically challenged Republicans need some bucking up, they might consider the inspiring words that candidate Trump offered to James Comey regarding his decision to reopen the Clinton email investigation 11 days before the election: “He brought back his reputation. It took a lot of guts.”

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Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond is the author of 11 books of fiction and nonfiction. He writes Cog's advice column, #HeavyMeddle, and is the co-host of Dear Sugar Radio.

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