If you’re a Gen Xer who grew up listening to “Free to Be … You and Me,” you know that “some kind of help is the kind of help that helping’s all about. And some kind of help is the kind of help we all can do without.” Which brings us to this tweet yesterday from former FBI director James B. Comey:
By the end of the day there will have been a half-dozen Fox News segments about this tweet, likely culminating in a long diatribe on “Hannity” about why this shows that the entire Russia investigation is a diabolical Democratic plot to take down the greatest president in American history, and if Republicans don’t get out and vote in November then disaster will befall our nation just at the moment when it was becoming great again.
Generally speaking, “Fox will make a big deal out of this” isn’t necessarily a reason not to do something. But just whom does Comey think he’s helping?
There’s an understandable yet faulty logic at work. Comey no doubt sincerely believes that a Democratic-led Congress is necessary not just to restrain President Trump in his potentially reckless policy choices, but also to mount the kinds of investigations of potential wrongdoing that Republicans have refused to carry out. As a former FBI director and Justice Department official, Comey is probably disgusted by the president’s constant attacks on both those institutions.
He also probably read this recent piece by George F. Will, in which one of America’s most prominent conservative columnists advised that patriotism demands that even Republicans vote for Democratic representatives in the fall, in order to provide an institutional check on Trump’s various abuses of power. Will wasn’t the first to make such a plea — some of the “Never Trump” Republicans endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 — but his was notable because it suggested plainly that even Republicans in Congress must be thwarted.
Everything that has happened since Trump took office has proved that the GOP-led Congress will do absolutely nothing to deter Trump’s abuses; the most Republicans can muster is a resigned shake of the head or a tentative statement that they’re “troubled.” But it’s understandably difficult for Republicans to go so far as to advocate that the party they dislike intensely be put in charge of Congress.
Comey, we shouldn’t forget, was a longtime Republican (though he said in 2016 he was no longer registered with the party). He’s also someone with nothing resembling a constituency. Whom can he persuade to vote for Democrats? Not Democrats, who are already motivated to turn out and who despise Comey for all but handing the presidency to Trump. And not Republicans, who have been told over and over that Comey is just out to get their beloved president and that nothing he says can be believed.
So all Comey has done is undermine his credibility as a witness to obstruction of justice in the Russia probe. From everything we know, Comey may be sanctimonious and show some terrible judgment, but he’s not a liar. Yet now it has become much easier to dismiss his accounts of his conversations with Trump as the fabrications of a partisan, even though he documented those conversations contemporaneously, long before he contemplated this kind of statement on partisan politics. The attacks on him may be mostly bogus, but he just made the president’s case easier to make.
Comey might reply that he’s just expressing an opinion, and everyone has a right to an opinion. That’s true. But if his goal is to actually persuade anyone, and presumably it is, all he has done is persuade Republicans that they need to get out and vote in November.
Contrast Comey with someone else who does have a constituency: Barack Obama. For the past 18 months, Obama has been extraordinarily circumspect about criticizing Trump, doing it on only a few occasions. That may be partly because he respects the tradition of former presidents staying out of politics, but it’s probably also because he realizes that at this point he may have more ability to motivate Republicans in opposition to him than he has to motivate Democrats to do what he urges them to. After eight years in office, he surely understands that for all his attempts to win Republicans over, he could do nothing about the boundless hatred he inspired just for being president.
So when Obama talks about Trump these days, he tends to do it obliquely, as he did in a speech yesterday in Johannesburg honoring the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth:
Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up. They just make stuff up. We see it in state-sponsored propaganda; we see it in internet-driven fabrications, we see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment, we see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more. Politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying they’d be like, “Ah, man.” Now they just keep on lying.
Everyone knew whom Obama was talking about. But watching him over the past year and a half, you can almost see his internal struggle, wanting to condemn Trump’s outrageous actions but worrying that doing so will be counterproductive to the Democratic cause.
Democrats’ best hope is that their voters will remain engaged and angry, while Republican voters become passive and dispirited. It’s hard for a public figure to help make that happen, because there’s always the possibility that what riles up your side also excites the other side in opposition to you. But it’s not easy to simultaneously motivate the other side against you, fail to persuade those you’re aiming at, and discredit the investigation into the president you’re now opposing. Comey somehow managed to pull it off.