Totally unprecedented. Totally unsurprising.
When President Donald Trump on Tuesday fired FBI Director James Comey, people steeped in presidential and legal history sounded alarms. “No president has ever dismissed an FBI director under such circumstances,” bestselling author Jon Meacham said on Twitter. “It’s a constitutional crisis,” David Cole of the Georgetown University Law Center wrote. “This is the kind of thing that goes on in non-democracies,” Jeffrey Toobin said on CNN.
People who know Trump didn’t disagree, but they also responded with a combination of relative resignation and seen-it-all-before shoulder shrugs.
“Outrageous,” former Trump Organization vice president Barbara Res said when I reached her at her home shortly after the news of the firing broke.
But was she shocked? “No,” she said.
“This is an act of insanity,” a former Trump inner-circle associate told me, “but it’s how he functions.”
“Completely consistent, yes,” with his pattern of behavior, a onetime Trump political aide added.
The Trump signature here is far more than the familiar seismic John Hancock he jammed into the White House stationery with his customary dark, thick-tipped, heavy-handed pen. Trump as president has been the man and manager he’s always been. He’s practically never worked for anybody but himself, he’s always cultivated a workspace marked by competition and chaos, and the only difference between how he operated on the 26th floor of Trump Tower and how he’s steering the West Wing of the White House are the stakes.
A strategically incoherent, predictably unpredictable, private-sector lord who ran his family business by doing what he wanted when he wanted and with limited consideration for consequences stretching beyond his own immediate interests and gratification, Trump has spent the first not quite four months of his presidency running headlong into the constitutional checks and balances of American democracy. The system of safeguards against dictatorial intemperance has flummoxed him. Where there has been objective failure, Trump as usual has proclaimed historic success.
In instances, though, in which executive power is sufficient for actual action, he has been nobody but his imperious, impetuous, spiteful self. And here, according to the reporting of POLITICO and other news organizations, Trump made a fraught, monumental, republic-rattling decision the way he’s always made decisions—quickly—and for the same central reasons—vengeance and self-interest. Comey wasn’t the first person he fired—he canned National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and interim Attorney General Sally Yates—but this sacking in many ways was Trump’s quintessential act as the country’s chief executive.
Enraged by the FBI’s ongoing investigation into his and his campaign’s Russian ties, Trump had pliant Justice Department deputies outline Hillary Clinton-related reasons to fire Comey—reasons that seemed contrived given Trump’s praise for Comey on the campaign trail, the kiss he blew in Comey’s direction this past January and his statement of support just last month. On Tuesday, however, Trump wrote a short letter of his own in which the second paragraph in particular pulsed with telltale Trump, down to the self-serving and factually unsupported statement replete with clumsily inserted commas. “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation …”
And then he didn’t do the actual firing himself, which has been a feature of his management style through the years. He didn’t call Comey. He had Keith Schiller, his longtime bodyguard who now has the title of Director of Oval Office Operations, take his letter to Comey’s office. Famous for saying “You’re fired” on TV, Trump never has relished firing people in real life.
“I think the shamelessness of it is stunning, and stunningly consistent,” Trump biographer Gwenda Blair said. “He’s thinking 24-7 how to move the chess pieces around to benefit himself.”
“Listen,” said Jack O’Donnell, a former high-ranking Trump casino executive in Atlantic City, “he’s always been very protective of himself, first and foremost. In that regard, this, I believe, is consistent—because he’s certainly trying to protect himself.”
“This is who he is,” said Artie Nusbaum, one of the top bosses at the construction firm that built Trump Tower. “No morals, no nothing. He does what he does.”
People who work or have worked with Trump have been saying this forever.
“He says, ‘Go do it’—that’s the end of it,” Trump Organization executive vice president George Ross told me last year.
“He gets an idea in his head and just says, ‘Do it,’” Res told me earlier this year. “There’s no direction. The idea isn’t built up or fleshed out. He just says, ‘Let’s do this.’”
Trump fired Comey without consulting many people, heeding only the advice he wanted to hear and evidently without much of a plan to handle the five-alarm fallout some White House officials say (preposterously) they did not expect.
“His whole pattern of conduct is exactly what he did here—ready, fire aim,” said Alan Marcus, a former Trump publicist. “He just doesn’t stop and think. It’s not ready, aim, fire. It’s ready, fire, aim.”
Trump’s improbable path to the Oval Office is littered with rash decisions. The “gut” he has talked so much about has helped him in the deals he discusses the most (the Grand Hyatt, Trump Tower, “The Apprentice”, his presidential campaign and Electoral College triumph). “Sometimes you’ll think with your head, he said in his book called Think Like a Billionaire. “Other times you’ll think with other parts of your body, and that’s good. Some of the best business decisions are made out of passion.” But this has hurt him plenty, too (the Trump Shuttle, the Trump Taj Mahal, the lion’s share of 1988, Trump University).
Trump’s worldview, based on hundreds of interviews in the last year and a half, as well as an extensive, ongoing study of what he’s said and done for decades, is that everybody is out to get everybody. Life is a zero-sum struggle, and you’re on your own. For him to win, others must lose. “Man is the most vicious of all animals,” Trump told People in 1981.
“The world is a horrible place,” he wrote in Think Big in 2007. “Lions kill for food, but people kill for sport. People try to kill you mentally, especially if you are on top. We all have friends who want everything we have. They want our money, our business, house, car, wife, and dog. Those are our friends. Our enemies are even worse! You have got to protect yourself in life.”
“To think there’s any logic beyond self-preservation is wrong,” one Trump source told me.
“He doesn’t give a crap who he fires,” Nusbaum said, “if he can stop the investigation or slow it down.”
Even so, Trump doesn’t like firing people, and never has, and has said so many times, mainly because in his mind dismissing somebody he has hired is an admission he made a mistake. This is why he so conspicuously dragged his feet before the firings of people like Corey Lewandowski and Flynn. But Trump didn’t hire Comey. Barack Obama did. So Trump fired the director of the agency investigating him, letting Comey find out from a TV in Los Angeles, where he was giving a speech, while Trump’s bodyguard back in Washington delivered the letter from his boss.
“This was almost as cool for Keith Schiller as the time when he body-slammed Vince McMahon in Trump Tower,” former Trump political consultant Sam Nunberg told me last night with a laugh, recalling a New York news conference to promote a WrestleMania event in which a pink-tied Trump would clothesline the WWE kingpin and then shave his head in front of a raving, roaring crowd.
“This guy,” Res said. “There’s no end to it. It’s going to be like this for a long time.”