In the hours since President Donald Trump sacked James B. Comey as FBI director, the splashiest headlines have gone to Republican critics of the move. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee – which was set to hear from Comey this week – said he was “troubled” by the move. After initially saying little, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told CNN that he had “questions.” Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., a rebellious libertarian-leaning congressman, got an unusual amount of attention after tweeting that he was “reviewing” legislation to create a special prosecutor, empowered to probe any Russian collusion with Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
But for most elected Republicans, and on conservative-leaning media, the story Tuesday night and Wednesday has been a cut-and-dry case of Democratic Party hypocrisy. Despite the White House’s deer-in-headlights PR response to questions, most of the president’s allies have robustly defended him, syncing up with the preferred storyline that the president did what most Americans had been craving.
The spin started Tuesday night, when relatively few Republicans were available to speak on TV. The House of Representatives is in a weeklong recess, and the Senate had adjourned for the day by the time the Comey news broke. But the very first Republican statement on the decision, from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. – a Trump critic who favors a Russia probe – said blandly that “given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well.”
On Fox News, all Tuesday evening, Democrats faced Socratic questioning about how they could have criticized Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email matter, and be genuinely outraged now. Rep. Tim Ryan’s appearance on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Fox’s 8 p.m. show, largely consisted of the host asking the Ohio Democrat if members of his party really were sad to see the end of Comey. Anyone watching the nation’s most popular cable news network was informed that the questions about Russia amounted to a “conspiracy theory,” and that the case for dumping Comey was bipartisan
“Is it good or bad that Jim Comey is no longer running the FBI?” Carlson asked.
“I think it’s an issue of timing, Tucker, and you can’t ignore that fact,” said Ryan, reiterating his party’s questions about Russia and the election.
“I understand your complaint, sort of,” said Carlson. “But I think people at home want to know: Was the right guy running the FBI or not? If not, why isn’t there rejoicing on the Democratic side of the House and Senate?”
Ryan had a deadpan response. “Because he’s in the middle of an investigation,” he said. “Look, we had Vladimir Putin get involved in our election.”
“You’ve already conceded, the leaders of your party have conceded and complained about the fact that Comey was not a reliable leader of the FBI,” said Carlson. “They thought he was flaky, and they said so. Why would you want someone like that in charge of any investigation?”
“The Republicans, including Donald Trump, were praising Comey in October of last year,” said Ryan. “And now, all of a sudden, he’s doing a 180. Don’t you find that a little bit peculiar? That in October, he has guts, and in April or May of this year he’s unfit?”
Carlson’s answer was interrupted by a live shot of Comey entering a private plane after canceling a planned speech in Los Angeles. But at 9 p.m. Eastern time, Sean Hannity’s eponymous Fox News show changed the tone from quizzical to celebratory.
“This is the first step in President Trump draining the deep state swamp,” Hannity said at the top of his broadcast. “James Comey, the former FBI director, is a national embarrassment. Frankly, he’s very lucky President Trump kept him around this long.”
After playing a clip from Comey’s news conference last July, where the former FBI director declined to pursue a case against Hillary Clinton, Hannity told viewers that Comey “didn’t deliver equal justice under the law,”
“James Comey, the Destroy-Trump-Media, the radical left – they sat on the sidelines,” said Hannity. He brought on Newt Gingrich, a stalwart Trump supporter, for a mutual venting session; the chyron at the bottom of the screen read “Trump to Comey: You’re Fired.”
“If Newt Gingrich had done the things Hillary Clinton did, you’d be in jail tonight, and I’d be visiting you with a cake and a file,” Hannity said.
On Wednesday morning, the tone was even more sympathetic to Trump – and more damning of Democrats – on “Fox and Friends,” the network’s bright-hued morning show. Several Republicans appeared, making their first on-camera analysis; all defended Trump. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — and an indefatigable investigator of Clinton’s emails — opened his interview by saying that the deputy attorney general who’d advised Comey’s firing was well-respected by both parties.
“Is it just political?” asked Fox’s Ainsley Earhart. “Is it anything Donald Trump does, they hate?”
“I think it gave them a chance to get back to something that they argued about a month ago, and it was losing steam; to have a special prosecutor or have a commission to look into it,” said Grassley. When it came to criticizing Comey, “they really don’t have a lot of credibility based on what they said last October when Comey reopened the inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Consequently, I don’t think they have much credibility.”
In another segment, Fox’s chief national correspondent and former White House reporter Ed Henry joined the hosts in deriding the idea that anything untoward had happened.
“Democrats going wild – spewing out conspiracy theories!” said co-host Brian Kilmeade, as the chyron below him read “Libs (sic) Lashing Out” and “Democrats’ Double Standard.”
“The bottom line here is that a former Trump adviser, Pete Hoekstra, says there is no there there,” said Henry.
Later, Judge Andrew Napolitano, who had provided advice to Trump about court nominations, appeared on the show to say the president had delivered on something long demanded by supporters and critics alike.
“The FBI serves at the pleasure of the president,” he said. “Even though he has a 10-year term, the president can fire him for any reason. President Trump clearly wanted to make a strong statement. Some of us have been calling for this since July 5, when he had that bizarre press conference saying no reasonable prosecutor would pursue a case against Hillary Clinton.”
And toward the end of the show, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., made the first of several Fox News appearances to commend Trump’s decision, and raise attention to his accusation that the Obama administration had spied on his presidential campaign. When Paul’s segment ended, “Fox and Friends” began a segment about Andrew McCabe, now the acting director of the FBI, whose wife ran for office in Virginia as a Democrat and had been supported by “Clinton allies,” like Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D-Va.
In other words, there was little of the bipartisan outrage that greeted President Richard Nixon when he fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973, leading to the resignations that became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Early Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a former judge and state attorney general, linked favorably to an op-ed about Democratic hypocrisy. (It ran in the Wall Street Journal, which like Fox News is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp.)
Hours later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appeared before cameras for the first time since the story broke, using his daily speech on the floor to chide Democrats for demanding a special investigation.
“Here’s what we have now: Our Democratic colleagues complaining about the removal of an FBI director who they, themselves, repeatedly and sharply criticized,” said McConnell. “That removal being done by a man, Rod Rosenstein, whom they repeatedly and effusively praised. Mr. Rosenstein recommended Mr. Comey’s removal for many of the very reasons they complained about.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · David Weigel