At the core of the generally impressive prime-time interview that George Stephanopoulos conducted with James Comey was a necessary question about the FBI director’s much-anticipated memoir: A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership. “You write that President Trump is unethical, untethered to the truth,” noted the ABC newsman. “Is Donald Trump unfit to be president?”
Comey’s reply was blunt and damning.
“Yes,” said the veteran federal law-enforcement officer, who last year was removed from the leadership of the Federal Bureau of Investigation by Trump. “But not in the way…I often hear people talk about it. I don’t buy this stuff about him being mentally incompetent or early stages of dementia. He strikes me as a person of above-average intelligence who’s tracking conversations and knows what’s going on. I don’t think he’s medically unfit to be president. I think he’s morally unfit to be president”
Comey did not stop there. He went into detail.
“A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it, that person’s not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds,” said the former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and deputy attorney general of the United States. “And that’s not a policy statement. Again, I don’t care what your views are on guns or immigration or taxes,” said Comey. “There’s something more important than that that should unite all of us, and that is our president must embody respect and adhere to the values that are at the core of this country. The most important being truth. This president is not able to do that. He is morally unfit to be president.”
That was a striking response—so striking that it demanded a follow-up question from Stephanopoulos. “If you are right, what is the remedy?” asked Stephanopoulos. “Should Donald Trump be impeached?”
Comey stumbled, attempting initially to describe the process. Stephanopoulos interrupted: “You’re a citizen. You have a judgment.”
“Yeah, I’ll tell you, I’ll give you a strange answer. 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. People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values,” said Comey, who added: “We’ll fight about guns. We’ll fight about taxes. We’ll fight about all those other things down the road. 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.”
Comey says Trump is morally unfit to be president. He says Trump lies constantly; he suggests that Trump is dangerously divisive; he explains how this president fails to adhere to values that are at the core of the country.
Yet Comey is willing to crown Trump as a king for four years, to argue that an unfit president who won a minority of the popular vote in 2016 (and trailed his main opponent by almost 3 million votes) should be allowed to remain in office until January 20, 2021.
That’s not how the American experiment is supposed to work.
The founders of this project established a system of checks and balances that was intended to protect the United States from the monarchical crisis. They had experienced the reign of King George III; they knew the trauma of being governed by an unfit, abusive, and dangerous leader who could not be removed from his position. They wanted to set a different course for the United States, and they did so by establishing an impeachment power that answered George Mason’s essential question: “Shall any man be above Justice? Above all shall that man be above it, who can commit the most extensive injustice?”
To assure that presidents did not become elected despots, and to guarantee that unfit leaders could be removed when necessary, Mason argued at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that “No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued.”
But this power, as it was outlined in the Constitution, and as it was employed by members of the founding generation in the first years of the republic, is not continued if we today imagine that presidents who are unfit, divisive, and dangerous must be allowed to remain in their positions until some distant date when accountability is finally permitted.
The former FBI director is a controversial figure. People can disagree about his past actions, and his explanations for them. But if the United States is to maintain a higher loyalty to the Constitution, then we must acknowledge that Comey got the impeachment question wrong.