The firing of FBI director James Comey and the miasma of shifting justifications that followed in its wake raise many questions, but perhaps the most important is whether there is any norm that Donald Trump will not defy. To review: He managed to win the presidency despite refusing to release his tax returns, threatening to jail his opponent, demeaning veterans, and having bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy.” As president, he imposed a travel ban on people from predominantly Muslim countries and explained on television that he intended to favor Christians. He has called the media the “enemy of the people” and the judge who enjoined his first travel ban a “so-called judge.” He has shared highly classified intelligence with Russian officials and pressured Comey to drop the criminal investigation of Gen. Michael Flynn, his national-security adviser. And he’s admitted that “this Russia thing with Trump” was on his mind when he decided to let Comey go, just as the FBI investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election—and the Trump campaign’s possible collusion—was heating up.
Republican leaders thus far seem willing to tolerate virtually anything Trump does, and Comey’s firing is no exception. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have closed ranks behind the president, rejecting the growing calls for a special counsel to investigate. Ryan argues that Trump has the constitutional authority to fire the FBI director, who is, after all, just another official in the executive branch. If it’s formally within the president’s powers, Ryan maintains, there is no problem.
But the relevant question is not merely whether Trump had the formal power to dismiss Comey, or even whether his actions amount to the crime of “obstruction of justice.” Our democracy is defined at least as much by the informal constitutional norms that have evolved over the past two centuries as by the formal principles reflected in the written document. These include notions that presidents should respect the other branches of government, that lying is unacceptable, and that the president, who technically oversees all federal law enforcement, should not interfere in criminal or counterintelligence investigations—especially those that concern the president himself or his close friends and advisers. That these norms are informal does not lessen their significance; they help ensure that the system runs smoothly without provoking a crisis. And precisely because norms are informally enforced, it is all the more essential that the country take them seriously. Absent a collective effort to punish transgressions, norms are vulnerable to being undermined, corroded, or rendered impotent. If Trump gets away with it, why should future presidents desist from firing someone investigating their cronies?
That’s why we must insist on a full, independent investigation. It’s possible that Trump’s campaign officials, despite their suspicious ties to Russia, did not collude in that country’s efforts to help Trump win office; after all, the Russians did not need the campaign’s active assistance. It’s also possible that Trump’s firing of Comey wasn’t intended to impede the Russia investigation. According to acting (at least for the moment) FBI director Andrew McCabe, the investigation has not been hindered. But we cannot know for sure unless there’s a credible public investigation into both the Russians’ meddling in the election and Trump’s meddling in the investigation. And if there are tapes of Trump’s conversations with Comey, they must be part of the inquiry.