Four thousand people work for the executive office of the President. Thirty-five thousand work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Protocols for communication between the two are well established. And yet, on Tuesday, after President Donald Trump decided to fire the F.B.I. director, James Comey, he had a letter printed out, dropped into a manila envelope, and carried to F.B.I. headquarters in the hand of his own longtime personal bodyguard, the fifty-seven-year old ex-N.Y.P.D. cop Keith Schiller. This Administration has a weakness for macho strutting: recall Vice-President Mike Pence, standing at the Korean D.M.Z., hands on hips, staring down the entire country of North Korea, as if what gave America leverage was not its planet-annihilating nuclear arsenal but a thrust, middle-aged, Hoosier chest. The Trump White House also has a weakness for Schiller, who has been given the novel title of director of Oval Office operations and a brief so accommodating that it permitted him to represent the country at a meeting with the political leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan while wearing an Adidas workout top. Even for this White House, though, Comey’s ouster was remarkably ritualized and medieval: a Corleone gesture, the loyalist sent across town with a letter in his hand.
Comey’s dismissal was a dark act, and possibly a historic one. It was also a strange scene. The President, facing the F.B.I.’s ongoing investigation into ties between his own campaign and Russia, reportedly asked his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, last week to “find a reason” to fire Comey. But Sessions, who failed to disclose meeting with Russian officials during the Presidential campaign, is himself compromised, having had to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation. And so the task fell to Sessions’s deputy, the largely anonymous Republican lawyer and prosecutor Rod Rosenstein, whose memorandum focussed on Comey’s decision, last July, to publicly disclose the findings of the F.B.I.’s investigation into whether Hillary Clinton mismanaged classified information over e-mail, a decision that Trump had loudly cheered at the time. The White House suggested that Rosenstein alone had made the decision to review Comey’s position. “It was all him,” Sean Spicer, the White House spokesperson, told reporters last night. “No one from the White House.” That seemed unlikely: It was only Rosenstein’s fourteenth day on the job.
The broader White House staff seems to have been surprised by the decision. “Nobody really knew,” a senior White House official told Politico. “Our phones all buzzed and people said, ‘What?’ ” Hastily, surrogates were dispatched to the cable news networks. On CNN, Anderson Cooper hosted Kellyanne Conway for what proved an excruciating thirteen minutes of television. Cooper asked, “You don’t think it looks at all odd that the President of the United States is firing the guy who is leading the investigation into the President’s White House and the people around the President?”
Conway tried to make a semantic distinction. “The President is not under investigation. I’m around the President. I’m not under investigation.” Cooper pointed out that Comey had confirmed to Congress that there was an ongoing investigation into the President’s associates. Was Conway really saying that none of the President’s advisers or associates were under investigation? “Well, I don’t know that,” she said.
In another exchange, Cooper pressed Conway about the putative reason for the firing. Trump, he reminded her, had loudly praised Comey’s handling of the Clinton e-mail case during the campaign. Why had the White House suddenly grown concerned about something that happened ten months ago? Conway responded by talking not about the President or the F.B.I. director but about the man who had written the memo, Rosenstein. “This is a man whose integrity is not in doubt,” Conway said, mentioning the bipartisan Senate majority that had confirmed his appointment, and she blamed Cooper for amplifying “derogatory” claims about him, as if the major thing at stake in the episode were not the integrity of American elections but the integrity of Rod Rosenstein. “That doesn’t make any sense,” Cooper said, and it didn’t.
That Rosenstein was both the executor of the President’s order and the ethical bulwark upon which the White House leaned to defend it says as much about the state of play as the glowering figure of Keith Schiller, delivering a casting-out letter to the door of a federal bureaucracy. The White House seems to be operating a loyalty cult without many loyalists. Rosenstein is a Trump outsider, a career Republican official with an establishment reputation, a familiar kind of figure who quickly conjured memories of John Dean and Archibald Cox. Trump did not have the authority he might have wanted, to simply fire Comey without justification or rationale. Sessions, compromised by his own involvement, did not have that authority, either. And so the moral defense of the elimination of Comey came to rest on the character of Rosenstein, an obscure figure who has suddenly become a pivotal one. (On Wednesday, Rosenstein’s role only looked more pivotal: reports said that, just last week, Comey had come to him to ask for more resources for the Russia probe.)
As the day dissipated, Rudy Giuliani, who early rumors suggested might be tapped to replace Comey, appeared at the Trump hotel in Washington, a building that the federal government is leasing to the President’s family, where he took photos with reporters and declined to reveal whether he would be meeting with Trump today. But all of this felt very premature. Comey has lost his job but not yet left the scene. He knows what is right now the most precious and guarded information in American public life: what the F.B.I. investigation has found.
In his personal letter announcing the firing, a short note that referred to Rosenstein’s longer one, Trump made a point of thanking Comey for informing him, “on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.” It was a strange note for the sitting President of the United States to strike, and a profoundly defensive one. Comey himself had been in Los Angeles, where he had gone to speak at an F.B.I. recruiting event, when he learned that he had lost his job. He made no public comments afterward, but news cameras tracked him as he rode in a car to the airport, got in a private jet, and then taxied down the runway, silent, holding secrets that even the President wanted to know. Now, that is the look of power.