One of the biggest problems historians confront is when students ignore the role of uncertainty in understanding the past. Looking at America in the 1850s, for example, students argue Illinois senator Stephen Douglas should’ve known that his Kansas-Nebraska Act would fail since the Civil War broke out a few years later. The students, of course, ignore the fact that Stephen Douglas couldn’t have known the nation would be plunged into war in 1860, just like they themselves cannot reasonably predict their own futures. Human beings do a bad job of incorporating uncertainty into their lives and understandings of history. We ignore the uncertainties and the gray areas that muddle our thinking and interrupt the narratives of our lives and our past. These same problems threaten to cloud our understanding of the firing of F.B.I. Director James Comey by President Trump. Newspapers and other media have looked to history to explain Trump’s actions, but they’re underestimating just how much we don’t know about the growing scandal surrounding the Trump White House.
The media have latched onto two different historical examples to try and explain Trump’s behavior. The first is the firing of F.B.I. Director William Sessions in 1993. President Bill Clinton fired Sessions after the director refused to resign amid an ethics probe. The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility had found that Sessions had tried to avoid paying taxes on a limousine that took him to and from work, had billed the federal government for the construction of a security fence around his home, and used business trips as a guise to visit family members. Sessions claimed he was the victim of a witch hunt and refused to resign, prompting Clinton to fire him half way through tenure at the F.B.I.
The second is the famed “Saturday Night Massacre” when President Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. As part of his investigation, Cox had subpoenaed Nixon demanding copies of taped Oval Office conversations relating to the Watergate break-in. Nixon refused to hand the tapes over and on Saturday October 20, 1973 ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned his post. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus also refused to fire Cox and resigned. Solicitor General Robert Bork, however, accepted the post of Acting Attorney General and fired Cox. The “Massacre” further heightened the Congressional investigation into Nixon’s actions and eventually resulted in Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.
Yet neither of these historical examples explains the Comey situation. First, Comey’s behavior had a much greater impact than Sessions’. Sessions had committed numerous ethical violations to benefit himself. Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, charged that Comey had violated the Hatch Act by attempting to interfere in the presidential election. According to a FiveThirtyEight analysis, Comey likely handed the election to Trump as a result of his October letter announcing the reopening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
The Saturday Night Massacre occurred deep in the midst of a Congressional investigation into crimes committed by the Nixon White House. The American public had already heard about the burglaries, the White House “Plumbers,” and other illegal behavior. The day before Cox’s firing, former White House counsel John Dean had pled guilty to a charge of obstruction of justice and would soon turn evidence against other Watergate conspirators. The F.B.I.’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia is nowhere near that point. No Trump administration officials have been convicted or even charged with any crime.
Comey’s firing shares one key component of the Saturday Night Massacre. Like 1973, Trump’s actions reek of a cover-up of something that public doesn’t yet fully understand. Yesterday, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Alexandria, VA issued subpoenas to associates of disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Last week, Comey asked for more money and personnel for the Russia investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein is overseeing the Russia investigation after Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself. Fueling this belief in a cover-up, Rosenstein is also the author of the memo that the Trump administration used to justify firing Comey. According to a Politico report, Trump “had grown angry with the Russia investigation — particularly Comey admitting in front of the Senate that the FBI was investigating his campaign — and that the FBI director wouldn’t support his claims that President Barack Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower.” He also wanted the F.B.I. to devote more resources to investigating media leaks from the Trump White House.
Despite all of this speculation, we know little about Trump’s motivations, Flynn’s actions, or the behavior of other key Trump campaign staff like Paul Manafort or Carter Page. Until the end of this Russia investigation, we should try to keep in mind what we do and don’t know. After all, no one knew in October 1973 that Nixon would resign just nine months later.