Critic's Notebook: An Insane Week of Watching TV News
Did anything interesting happen?
First, a confession: At the beginning of the week, I decided that it would be a nice idea to take a few days off from obsessively following news about politics. After all, there’s only so much excitement a person can take, and a respite would be good for the soul.
So tell me, did anything interesting happen?
Even by the down-the-rabbit-hole standards of the Trump administration, this week has been a doozy. When it started, everyone thought that Sally Yates’ testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about Michael Flynn would dominate the headlines. And Yates did confirm that she had informed the White House that Flynn had lied to them about his conversations with Russian officials and that the White House only fired him 18 days later. And then, only because the press had gotten hold of the story.
But then, just as we were still digesting that sobering information, cellphones buzzed with news alerts the very next day with the shocking headline that Trump had fired James Comey. The White House issued a statement explaining that the president had axed the FBI director on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who in a memo cited Comey’s poor handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation. Trump, who apparently has less taste for firing people in real life than he does on television, sent a termination notice to Comey that bizarrely made the point, "While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau."
Just in case, you know, anyone thought that the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia had anything to do with it. Glad that’s cleared up. Comey, meanwhile, suffered the humiliation of learning about his ouster while addressing FBI agents. At first he thought it was a joke, which considering everything that’s gone on since Trump assumed office, was a reasonable assumption.
Of course it wasn’t. And the next few days we were treated to one bizarre episode after another. The list is nearly as “countless” as the number of FBI agents who supposedly told Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that they were “grateful” for Trump firing their boss.
Here are just a few: Anderson Cooper’s eye-roll that went around the world; Sean Spicer literally hiding in the bushes to avoid talking to reporters (it’s a wonder he hasn’t thought of it before); the tragic split between John McCain and Lindsey Graham over Comey’s firing; and the Nixon Library, displaying an heretofore unseen sense of humor, issuing the tweet, “Fun Fact: President Nixon never fired the Director of the FBI.” And lord knows, there are so many Nixon fun facts to choose from.
But for sheer jocular value, it was hard to beat, who else, the Russians. Appearing before reporters with Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to be auditioning for Last Comic Standing when he reacted to a question about Comey being fired. “Was he fired?” Lavrov asked, deadpan. “You’re kidding!”
Then, in an example of the sort of expert P.R. move for which he’s become renowned, Trump decided that now would be the perfect time for a meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the “Where’s Waldo?” of his administration.
Displaying uncharacteristic modesty, the White House decreed that no American press photographers would be allowed to shoot the friendly get-together. But those rascally Russians had other ideas, releasing photos of a grinning Trump and Kisylak shaking heads, presumably after downing celebratory shots of vodka. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem surprising that Russian photographers were allowed into the Oval Office. After all, how else would they install their bugs?
Finally, there was the interview with NBC’s Lester Holt in which Trump cleared everything up. Not. Directly contradicting previous White House statements, the president declared that he had always intended to fire Comey.
“I was going to fire regardless of recommendation,” Trump said to a confused Holt, who had clearly assumed that the administration would at the very least have gotten its story straight. Trump went on to assure Holt that the termination had absolutely nothing to do with anything like, say, Comey’s determination to pursue the Russia investigation.
“I said to myself, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story,” Trump mused, as psychologists added “dissociative reality disorder” to their list of possible diagnoses. Trump went on to cite his victory in the Electoral College (which really annoyed me because I had “seven minutes into the interview” in the office pool) and then got back to the topic of the day.
“He’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander,” Trump said about the former FBI director, in a textbook example of the pot calling the kettle black. The insults illustrated his true motivation for firing Comey, about whom he has sarcastically commented, “He’s become more famous than me.” As Steve Bannon painfully learned, overshadowing Trump is not the best way to curry favor.
“I am a big fan of the FBI, I love the FBI!” Trump declared, which was scary because we all know how he behaves when he’s aroused. He told Holt that he had had a “very nice dinner” with Comey, although he provided no details about what they had for dessert (if you don’t get the reference, you just haven’t been keeping up). Trump informed Holt that he had politely asked Comey, “If it’s possible, will you let me know if I’m under investigation?” Because really, that’s what everyone wants their president to ask when he has dinner with the head of the FBI.
Looking to the future, Trump assured Holt, “I want a great FBI director." Which can only mean one thing — Jared Kushner will shortly be taking the job. Trump also reiterated that he has absolutely no ties to Russia, and his proof was incontrovertible: “I have a certified letter!” he declared.
Holt concluded the interview by asking Trump about the peculiar statement he made while he gathered with House Republicans celebrating stripping health insurance from millions of Americans, when he said: “I’m the president! Can you believe it?” Trump told him, “Anybody who becomes president of the United States has to, every once in a while, say, ‘That’s really amazing.’”
True enough. Since the inauguration, that’s the one thing that we can certainly all agree on.
P.S. Friday morning, Trump issued tweets threatening Comey that he had better not leak “tapes” of their conversations, and suggesting that “the best thing to do would be cancel all future press briefings.” Really, it’s just impossible to keep up.