Succeeding in politics in a democratic nation is different from making a go of it in a business centered on one person—or in an autocracy. Almost all of President Trump’s problems can be traced to his failure to grasp this. It explains why he now has such a big problem with former FBI Director James Comey.
It’s not surprising that Trump’s warmest words have been reserved for autocrats. They run things the way he likes to run things. No obnoxious media. No annoying political opposition. No independent judiciary. No need to show any concern about the people who work for you. Despots can make them disappear. It’s no accident that “You’re fired” is the phrase that made Trump famous.
In Trump world, everything is a deal, everything is transactional, everything is about personal loyalty—to him. What can I give you to make you do what I want? What can I threaten you with to force you to do what I want? Will you be with me no matter what?
In constitutional democracies, rules and norms get in the way of this sort of thing. Other institutions in government have autonomy and derive their authority from being at least partly independent of politics. The boss does not have absolute power.
This is how we should understand Comey’s extraordinary prepared testimony released on Wednesday in advance of his Thursday appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Here are the things Trump still doesn’t get: (1) Comey is his own person concerned with his own reputation and standing. (2) A president, unlike a despot, can’t unilaterally change the rules that surround a legal investigation. (3) People in government don’t only work for the president; their primary obligation is to the public. (4) Personal relationships matter a great deal in government, but they aren’t everything; Comey could not go soft on Michael Flynn just because Trump likes Flynn or fears what Flynn might say. (5) Because of 1, 2, 3, and 4, Comey was not going to do what Trump asked, even if this meant being fired.