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Friday, May 12, 2017

The Memo: Trump’s instincts misfire on Comey

The Memo: Trump’s instincts misfire on Comey
By Niall Stanage - 05-12-17 09:36 AM EDT

Instinct and impulse won the White House for Donald Trump. But the same traits have precipitated the most damaging moments of his presidency.

The firing of FBI Director James Comey is the latest, gravest example of a Trump misfire.

The decision to dismiss the director while the bureau is investigating alleged links between Trump campaign associates and Russia has thrown the administration into chaos.

It has drawn criticism or concern from at least a dozen Republican senators and emboldened Trump's most fervent critics to raise the prospect of impeachment.

And all of it seems to have been motivated in large part by Trump's growing resentment and personal animus toward Comey.

According to one Republican strategist with close ties to the White House, the whole episode came to a head because Comey described himself as "mildly nauseous" at the idea his actions in regard to Hillary Clinton's emails might have affected the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Trump's visceral reaction to that remark, made earlier this month at a Senate Judiciary Committee public hearing, was a "significant factor" in sealing Comey's fate, according to the source.

It's just the latest instance where Trump has shot from the hip, only to suffer a self-inflicted wound.

His tweeted allegation that President Obama had tapped his phones - a charge unsupported by evidence - ate up time and political capital in March. Right after Trump took office in January, a dispute over the size of his inauguration crowd did instant damage to his administration's credibility.

Regarding Comey, Trump's improvisational approach did not begin and end with the dismissal itself. In a Thursday interview with Lester Holt of NBC News, Trump addressed the topic of a memo prepared by deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, which levied serious criticisms against Comey.

The version of events Trump gave to Holt - "regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey" - flew in the face of the explanation given by Vice President Pence the previous day. Pence, speaking on Capitol Hill, said that Trump had merely "made a decision to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general."

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders pushed back against the media's interest in the discrepancy.

"I think instead of getting so lost in the process - did this happen at 12:01 or 12:02, did he fire him because he wore a red tie or a blue tie? - he fired him because he was not fit to do the job," Sanders said at Thursday's media briefing. "It's that simple."

There have been times when Trump's instincts have paid off - not only during last year's campaign but in the months since his inauguration.

One instance was his decision to launch a missile strike on a Syrian airfield after being outraged by TV footage of child victims of a gas attack. On that occasion, Trump's actions earned praise even from some usually critical voices.

The strategist with White House ties praised that move but did not dispute that Trump's reliance on his own gut was inherently risky.

"It really is like betting on red or black," the source said, likening the scenario to roulette. "Sometimes it works out for him and sometimes it doesn't. The hope for his administration is that the good decisions outweigh the bad."

Supporters and critics of the president agree that there is one overarching problem for people hoping to see a different approach: Trump takes enormous vindication from the success of last year's campaign.

The purported experts inside the Beltway dismissed him as a joke at the beginning of his quest.

Yet he first vanquished a large Republican field that included far more experienced politicians. He then beat Clinton, when polls and pundits were predicting a heavy defeat right up until Election Day.

He did it all while flouting political convention in countless ways - from criticizing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for getting captured during the Vietnam War to holding fast to his insistence on building a wall across the southern border.

Even experts who are politically opposed to Trump acknowledge the strength of that achievement.

"His instinct is generally validated by the response he gets from his supporters," said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. "That is a very important thing. It absolutely helped demolish the Republican field, and it was enough to squeeze out the Electoral College victory."

But Trippi cautioned that the traits that were enough to win the presidency might not be enough to thrive in office.

"His instinct is right, in striking a powerful chord with whatever number of people are part of his base - maybe 38 or 43 percent of the country. The problem is that it tends to repel the rest."

The improvisational nature of Trump's approach has also complicated the lives of the White House communications team.

Media reports have indicated that Trump press aides learned of his intention to fire Comey only an hour or so before it happened - and then had to deal with the wrath of their boss when he judged their response lacking.

"It's not just the fact of a shooting-from-the-hip decision. It's the speed at which those decisions are then implemented," the source close to the White House lamented. "If the decision is made, then there needs to be a process to allow the staff to absorb it."

But Trump is not about to change now. "'Impulsiveness' and 'Donald Trump' are synonyms," said Timothy L. O'Brien, the author of a biography of Trump and the executive editor of Bloomberg View. "He has been impulsive his entire life."

At times that has paid dividends. But, as the White House is finding out, it has the potential to do real harm, too.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump's presidency. 

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