More interesting than the headline, though, is Comey’s reasoning. And it’s less to do with his unique proximity to Trump than his place in the Washington political firmament. With his book and in recent remarks, Comey is acting as an avatar for a certain way of thinking about American life. Unsurprisingly, his manner of mindfulness is most prevalent in the Beltway, where he’s worked in positions of extraordinary power for more than a decade.
“I’ll give you a strange answer,” Comey said when the question was put to him by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos during their interview. “I hope not, because I think impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty bound to do directly.”
His argument, in short, is that American voters should reap what they’ve sown. This is not an uncontroversial opinion. But for now, let’s jump ahead.
“People in this country need to stand up,” Comey added, explaining how he’d prefer to see Trump ousted, “and go to the voting booth and vote their values.”
It was a confusing turn, if only for what it left unsaid. Comey pretty clearly believes that Americans signed up, legitimately, for the Trump presidency and should now be made to contend with its full effects. But his solution, a return to the polls, where — this time around — voters cast ballots in line with “their values,” is pretty loaded.
To start, it suggests that, in November 2016, Americans did something else — that they set aside “their values” and made their decision based on … what? Comey doesn’t say. “I think about the people who supported Trump, and continue to support Trump,” he told Stephanopoulos, but only — according to his comments Sunday — in the context of what “their fathers and grandfathers” fought and died for in the military.
Implicit in all this is the idea that Trump’s election was an anomaly, a national crack-up and departure from our ethical, patriotic center.
“We’ll fight about guns. We’ll fight about taxes. We’ll fight about all those other things down the road,” Comey said. “But you cannot have, as President of the United States, someone who does not reflect the values that I believe Republicans treasure and Democrats treasure and independents treasure. That is the core of this country. That’s our foundation. And so impeachment, in a way, would short-circuit that.”
His conclusion is simple and sound. Impeachment is at its core a political act and, without an overwhelming consensus in its favor, risks causing more trouble — the existential kind — than it saves. The ongoing crisis in Brazil, though not a one-to-one comparison, offers some insight into the pitfalls.
But Comey is out of step with the reality of our times when he sets out the values that govern — or, to the point, he believes should govern — American political life. Guns and taxes, he argues, should be secondary concerns to the integrity of the individual in the Oval Office. When that person doesn’t possess what Comey might describe as “a higher loyalty,” he suggests that the rest of our politics should effectively come to a halt.
This is a fairly common view. It’s shared most vocally by “never Trump” Republicans and centrist Democrats who seem to find Trump’s policies less offensive than his personal style and disdain for political norms. The problem with this analysis is that it implies silos of thought, opinion and action where there’s no evidence they actually exist.
Guns and taxes are not issues existing apart from Trump’s presidency. Debates over both are hot as ever. It’s all connected. One fight cannot be paused while the others sort themselves out. Even if that were possible, there is no groundswell to say which should be the priority.
Comey pretty clearly regards his view of American political life as a high-minded, righteous one — the product of so many years either exercising power or observing (and judging) others in the act. But things have changed. Slowly, then with Trump’s election, all at once. His comments don’t seem to grasp the depth of the rupture.