Trump fired Comey in part because he did not understand him and in part because of who or what Trump is. What has been less explored is why or how Trump did not understand Comey.
On the surface, one view of why Trump fired him was that Trump saw him as a king maker like J. Edgar Hoover. In this approach Trump understands Comey’s reopening of the investigation into Hillary’s emails as an attempt to swing the election towards him to gain an advantage over Trump. Even if Comey did not intend this, his deed created the appearance, if not the reality, that Comey would have something over Trump. For Roy Cohn, who tutored Trump, this view would make political sense. Roy Cohn, who was a notoriously vicious man well practiced in exploiting other people and situations to his advantage, would do this so it is not surprising that his protégé would see Comey and what Comey had done in this light. What Comey appeared to do is exactly what Trump would have done or what Roy Cohn taught him to do.
On the surface this sounds plausible since Trump lives and dies by appearances as he works assiduously to manage his public persona, his reputation, as a dealmaker, a self-made billionaire, and an astute political operator. Trump’s understanding of Comey would be reinforced rather than dispelled by the Steele Dossier briefing. Even if Comey wanted to do his duty, his briefing would appear to reinforce rather than dispel Trump’s fear or suspicion of what Comey was doing. Again, even if this is not what Comey intended, it created the appearance, if not the reality, that Comey had something on Trump. Yet, this only remains on the surface, it does not explain why Trump understood Comey in this way. We can excuse this or explain it by blaming Roy Cohn as this explains why Trump fired Comey. However, that would only be half the story. The other half is the context within which Trump lives. Here we see something different since he could not understand Comey as Comey understood himself. By all accounts, Comey appears to be a decent man, but Trump has never met a decent man.
Trump surrounds himself with the unjust, the incontinent, and the slavish. In a word, these are men and women who are malleable, who can be bent to his will, who have a transactional relationship with him. The unjust do not wish to be found out for what they have done so they will keep Trump’s secrets for fear their own will be disclosed. The incontinent are easily controlled so long as they can indulge their desires. For some this is easier access to sexual partners. For others, it is the opportunity to hurt their political enemies. Finally, the slavish simply want to be in power since that is better than being out of power, which means they are willing to subordinate themselves to Trump to obtain some status. The slavish will serve Trump to hold onto that power. For each, the unjust, the incontinent, and the slavish, Trump knows how to control them, exploit them, and if that does not work, how to bribe them.
These are the types of people Trump has known his entire life. Within his entourage Trump has never known a decent man. He has only worked with and surrounded himself with corrupt, venal, men and women. His relationship with them is purely transactional so he knows they have a price. This price is either the cost of the non-disclosure agreements that are covered by a “position on his campaign” or the salary, status, and position that come with working for him. He knows how to buy people, he knows their breaking point or their price point. Those he cannot buy he will intimidate either with threats from such men like Cohen or Schiller. If he cannot intimidate them, he can bind them up with legal claims such as those used by Roy Cohn to thwart anyone attempting to hold Trump to account. Those who cannot be intimidated, he bypasses them either directly or finding someone who has leverage over them who is venal either for money, status, or reputation. In most cases, this would be turning to politicians to gain leverage over people. Since, politicians can be seen to be particularly venal because they require public support and will exchange things in return for financial or public support, Trump will view politicians and those senior civil servants in this way.
We know what type of people work for Trump, but what is a decent man? How would we recognize him? A decent man or woman is someone who can meet more than one of the following.
- Being honest
- Being just by paying what he promised.
- Being faithful to their spouse
- Being a good parent
- Being respectful to women
- Being compassionate to the weak, the immigrant, the poor, the vulnerable.
For all appearances, especially based on what Benjamin Wittes wrote about him, Comey appears to meet many of these characteristics. However, these are mainly personal traits, they don’t address the public or professional appearance especially for a political man such as Comey. Here we can see why Trump would overlook Comey’s personal traits since he only wants to know about his professional or public behaviour. To anyone familiar with the politics in Washington DC and within the Federal Bureau of Investigations, people don’t rise to the top of any institution because they are nice people. They may not be dishonest, venal, or corrupt, but they understand how to exercise power and how to climb the ladder. To succeed, such men may have made decisions to serve the powerful or those that can benefit them. Even if they have not behaved in this way, Trump, and others, would assume that this is how politics works, since that is how they understand politics, and this is how Comey and others have succeeded. James Comey did not rise to the top of the FBI because he was a nice guy. He did not survive in DC by being unable to defend himself politically or bureaucratically. To put it colloquially he knows how to take out people at the knees.
Trump though does not know or trust decent men. In Trump’s mind, a decent man is weak because he is unwilling or unable to take advantage of the vulnerable, to press his advantage, exploit others, or treat them unjustly. What would be central to Trump’s view is that he believes that no one weak, no one decent, reaches the top of the FBI or succeeds in the FBI without some injustice.
For Trump Willie Stark’s wisdom is a personal truth.
Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.
When Comey came to Trump with the Steele dossier, he would have seen this in a different light than the average person. He would have viewed this as Comey showing him what he had on Trump with the implied message that he, Trump, owed Comey or that Comey was showing him that he had leverage over him. In other words, Comey had swung the election and had the dossier which would mean that he could control whether Trump was a legitimate president. Behind the scenes only Trump and Comey would know what Comey had on Trump and what Trump “owed” him. He would have seen this as Comey saying something between the lines “I have this on you and I can make it worse for you so better behave.” He might have even though that Comey was coming to him with evidence or something that he would use as a chip in the game or simply leverage over Trump. Trump has never had an employee who had something over him so he felt he had to fire him.
At the same time, he might have seen Comey as expecting something in return for having tipped the election Trump’s way. Therefore, he asks for loyalty. Is Comey working for Trump or does Comey expect Trump to work for him? He would want to know what Comey wants. Comey cannot be a decent man so he must want something as no one does this because they believe in the law, they all have a price.
In this sense, Trump is correct. Washington is a swamp. Those who live there know this and they know that some form of corruption is part and parcel of what they do. No, this does not mean that politics is corrupt or that the law is a sham. Instead, it shows that what Trump believes and how he behaves displays what is implicit within Washington. It is a city that is built on political power, influence and corruption. The political power can be both clean and dirty. Institutional power is often the cleanest power yet it is personal power, the dirtiest, that is the most important since it is what can make men act contrary to their institutional responsibilities. The problem is that we cannot achieve clean power without having recourse to dirty power because people are elected, which has been shown to be the least corrupt method to select people to wield institutional power. Until we understand power is both clean and dirty and why it is clean and dirty, we will be unable to understand Trump, Trump’s appeal, and most importantly how or why Trump misunderstood Comey. Or did Trump understand Comey better than Comey understands himself?