Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, who is leading an investigation into his campaign’s collusion with the Russian government, is a dark moment in American history. World history is replete with dictators, despots, and authoritarians who have been rightly condemned for using their office to eliminate their critics and weaken democratic checks on their power. To witness this act in a country that prides itself on its democratic principles and values is both shocking and deeply troubling.
Serious concerns about Director Comey’s handling of previous investigations aside, his firing by Donald Trump should be viewed as a blatant consolidation of power that will taint any subsequent appointment to that position. Based upon what we’ve seen from the Trump administration over the last 110 days, we should expect neither candor nor accuracy to emerge from the White House without a truly independent body investigating credible allegations.
Of course there is an inherent tension in critiquing Comeys’ firing: since its inception, the institutional role of the FBI itself has been to eliminate critics and weaken democratic checks on power. Our goal at CCR and as part of social movements is not merely to make the government machine run well. We know that even—and perhaps especially—when it runs efficiently government can have devastating effects on vulnerable communities. But Trump’s rash and radical moves only compound injustices we were already fighting. The rapidness with which Trump is dismantling our constitutional structure should not cause us to forget pre-Trump abuses, but sharpen our attention to them. Eliminating checks on power and ousting critics threaten democracy whether coming from a president and directed at internal checks or from a government and directed at the people. Trump’s actions are not qualitatively different from FBI abuses against social movements—but they are are consolidating power even more tightly, and they are rapid-fire.
Comey’s firing goes far beyond partisan wrangling: we are witnessing the time-lapse version of the erosion of American democracy. Without independent investigation of alleged presidential campaign or administration misdeeds, we lose the cornerstone of what separates democracy from tyranny; we lose our ability to hold elected officials accountable; and, by accepting only a president’s word that he has done nothing wrong, we divest ourselves of our greatest aspirations for what a democracy should be.