Trust, so fundamental to democracy, is being crushed in the sour row between Donald Trump and James Comey
Police around the world are supposedly there “to serve and protect”, and yet we see the current showdown between a former chief of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and President Donald Trump sinking America’s already shaky democracy further into jeopardy. Elected leaders are of course mandated to assemble their own teams of specialists on agriculture, finance, public welfare and the like, but the police represent a different kind of institution, assigned a singular task, and that is ensuring the day to day safety of ordinary citizens.
The other institutions in American politics also attend to the public interest, but they tend to enjoy a moral flexibility denied the police. Agriculture and commerce policies can differ from one presidential administration to another, and democracy allows citizens to choose the leader whose policies best serve their needs and those of the country as a whole. Presidential candidates might pledge to promote sugarcane production over cotton. In office they might raise or lower interest rates. But none can say the police will be selective in the way they pursue
justice. No candidate can say they will adjust the all-but-sacred mission of the police. None can alter the circumstances in which justice is pursued.
So it is deeply disturbing to see Trump trading serious accusations with James Comey, the FBI chief he sacked. If Trump is to be believed, Comey was a villain at the bureau’s helm and he harbours contempt for democracy. If Comey is right, an evil leader – chosen by nearly half the electorate and settled in office by an Electoral College majority – is imperilling that same democracy.
The FBI might be a political agency, but this doesn’t mean it should be politicised. Yes, the bureau’s work involves gathering intelligence, but ostensibly at least, it does so to protect the public, not to serve the needs of any individual politician. The ongoing drama with Trump suggests the FBI is indeed being used a political tool in the service of those in power rather than citizens.
Comey’s sacking came early in Trump’s tenure at the White House. The president has said he was
disappointed that the FBI was
investigating perceived collusion with Russia instead of perceived
wrongdoing by Bill and Hillary Clinton. Many other theories about the firing have been suggested. All of this has ignored the fundamental mission of the police.
The latest flash point in this unhealthy stand-off came just days ago, when Comey, in the midst of promoting his memoirs, called on the nation to recognise that Trump’s various actions amount to an immoral and malignant presidency that undermines core democratic values. “The foundation of this country is in jeopardy when we stop measuring our leaders against that central value of the truth,” he said. The oratory might have been part of a book-selling exercise, but it was one of the most penetrating critiques of Trump’s White House to be heard so far from an establishment figure.
Comey’s book is flying off the shelves and Trump remains secure in office. What’s being damaged is the noble concept of “by the people, for the people”. Americans, rendered mistrustful by decades of revelations about murky political agendas, must be wondering if any trust at all is still possible.