Image courtesy of the author.
Carnegie Mellon University

Commentary: Two weeks of political drama: A lesson in checking power

The past two weeks have been a political roller coaster with too many political stories going viral because they seem right out of the script of a TV show. But they are real events, and they are one big test for America’s democracy.

First, it was the shocking revelation that President Trump had fired James Comey, the director of the FBI. The president claimed that the firing was due to Comey’s handling of last year’s Hillary Clinton email controversy and that he was acting on the Deputy Attorney General’s recommendation, but soon, the president admitted that he fired Comey because the latter was leading the FBI investigation into Trump’s Russian ties.

Then, after the Comey storm had subsided a bit, it was revealed that Trump had allegedly shared sensitive classified information on the ISIS terror threat with two Russian officials. Despite the president having broad authority to declassify information, many questioned the unplanned, spontaneous way it was apparently disclosed to a country considered hostile to the U.S.

Just a day later, it was revealed that Comey had apparently written memos saying that the president had asked him to end the Flynn investigation and had asked for his “loyalty,” to which Comey promised only honesty. Comey seemed deeply disturbed by some of these interactions as well as public displays of physical closeness to him by Trump, which he saw as the president trying to compromise his and the FBI’s integrity.

Then, former FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed to head a special investigation into the Russian ties– a victory for those who have been calling for an independent investigation into the ever-brewing smoking guns presented by the Russian hacking and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

Finally, near the end of the week, it was reported that Trump had allegedly told the Russians that Comey was a “nut job” and “firing him relieved great pressure”– in regards to the ongoing Russian investigation.

There have certainly been political scandals in the past– most notably, Watergate. But even Nixon did not seem as incompetent as today’s president and a foreign power did not help elect him. But this seemingly unprecedented presidential behavior on the part of President Trump is caused by a force as old as humanity itself– egoism. President Trump was born into a wealthy family and seemed to have never learned to care for anyone else. He always felt entitled to what he already had and more, just because of his privilege.

Throughout his old life as a television star and real estate developer, he was always in pursuit of the next lucrative deal, the next girlfriend, or even more fame. Money affirms his belief that he worked hard and “did the right thing”; girlfriends affirm that he is popular, sexy, and generally the “best guy around”; fame affirms his privileged social status. But even this didn’t seem to be enough for him– he wanted more legitimacy and more power. He understood the psychology of some people in the country– everything from the throes of partisanship to the anger against what some perceive to be shadowy forces conspiring against them to the hatred of Clinton– and fully utilized the masses to his advantage.

He crafted seemingly simple, obvious policies and repeated slogans on the campaign trail that his supporters wanted to hear, such as having Mexico pay for a border wall, shutting down Muslim immigration, jailing Clinton over her email controversy, bashing the news media often with little merit, and “making America great again,” driving up his poll numbers enough that he was elected president. Not satisfied with the power of the presidency, he makes use of it to act out all of his authoritarian tendencies–the most glaring example being firing the man leading an investigation into corruption charges involving the president himself, allegedly after he tried unsuccessfully to get Comey to become a Trump loyalist.

The Trump family used the fame and power to rake in even more lucrative deals and benefits, “stacking the conflicts of interest higher than any Trump Tower.” Despite his many blunders due to his incompetence and the shadow of corruption always hanging over him, he never fails to believe that he is right and that his critics are simply political enemies out to hurt him.

President Trump attests to the power of egoism– it is limitless, and it serves as the driving force behind every crime, every piece of corruption. When one has enough privilege that no one can check one’s egoism, it can balloon into something almost uncontrollable and shadow reality before our very eyes. In order for someone to be a successful president, he or she has to learn how to listen to others instead of always thinking about what he or she desires and find a balance between all the competing factors in a decision–in other words, checking one’s ego at the door to the presidency.

Now, to the other person at the center of much of the drama of the last two weeks– Comey. First, it should be acknowledged that he has made mistakes over his short tenure as the Director of the FBI, in particular with regards to his handling of the email controversy during the election cycle. Just 11 days before the election, he publicly discussed the existence of potential new emails related to the Clinton investigation, and then cleared her just two days before the election. Many democrats– including Clinton herself– believed that the timing of the announcement was part of what cost her the election.

Fundamentally, one could question why he decided to publicize findings about Clinton and not publicize the fact that the FBI was investigating Trump’s Russian ties as well. It seems like it would be fair to either disclose both or not disclose either of the investigations; given that Comey was known to be a republican, it was easy for democrats to say that he did it on purpose because of his own biases. Despite this, many people on both sides of the aisle have praised Comey for his integrity and unwavering commitment to upholding the rule of law.

One of the most significant stories of his career was when he, as Deputy Attorney General, refused to authorize a surveillance program that the Bush administration wanted to pass because he believed many parts of it overstepped the bounds, and successfully got the administration to revise key parts of the program to fit with the law. He also kept a memento from the FBI investigation of Martin Luther King, Jr. on his desk as a reminder not to abuse his power as head of the FBI. Thus, another way to interpret his handling of the Clinton email case would be that he wanted to warn her that she should not abuse her power, as she was still leading in the polls; and he did not think he would actually affect the outcome of the election.

Now that President Trump is in power, Comey was doing all he could to properly get to the bottom of the Trump investigation, and publicly announced the investigation’s existence a few months ago. Through this lens, Comey is an example of someone who always takes on the role of checking the limits of governmental power to make sure officials are not overstepping their boundaries, no matter if the officials are democrat or republican. This is a vitally important role in any democracy, as exemplified by the events of the past two weeks; without a person of integrity in such a role, egos would expand far beyond what is supposed to be the law and result in corruption and abuses of power. This would explain why Comey is not very popular among members of either party and why President Trump fired him: Comey was always trying to check the limits of power and thus, their egos.

Finally, the past two weeks have also attested to the power and importance of good journalism. Without the rigorous reporting done by outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post, the public would not know about these stories and officials would not have been pressured into revealing more of the truth– and limiting their egos.

Journalism’s importance to the health of the democracy is enshrined in the First Amendment because journalism starts a national conversation about important topics. Only through conversation can we start to meaningfully create change. Many people believe that the news media is biased, and perhaps some of their articles are. But we must remember that without an independent news media, we would not have a functioning democracy.

The recent political drama is a lesson in the need to check governmental power: the danger of unchecked power is one too great for our society to afford.

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