A Jewish folk tale recounts a dim-witted bandit who stole something from a stall in a busy market in the shtetl, before disappearing into the crowd. Then some genius came along and shouted “Oyfn ganef brent dos hitl” - “the cap on the thief’s head is burning” - upon which our dopey crook gave himself away by reaching for his hat to make sure it isn’t on fire. The Yiddish phrase, which is now in widespread use in Hebrew, is used whenever someone’s behavior reveals his or her guilt.
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The difference between our goofball ganef and Donald Trump is that the latter didn’t wait for someone to shout out that his hat’s on fire. Trump himself set the blaze over his ginger head with his shock dismissal on Tuesday of FBI Director James Comey. For many Americans, the move showed that the FBI investigation of illicit ties between Russia and Trump’s staff, before and after November’s election, was getting too close for Trump’s comfort. Trump was already having a hard time deflecting suspicions that where there’s smoke there’s fire, and that the accumulating evidence of clandestine ties between his advisers and the Kremlin, even if only circumstantial, was enough to secure his conviction. By firing Comey, critics said, Trump was searing his forehead with a signed confession “I did it.”
Comey’s abrupt dismissal shocked even diehard cynics who were convinced that Trump couldn’t surprise them any more. It strengthened calls for the appointment of a special prosecutor to oversee the FBI probe. It united Democrats in righteous indignation and put Republicans in a very uncomfortable corner: If they back Trump they will be portrayed as spineless but if they oppose him they will be marked for savage retribution. And it created a crisis of confidence in the resilience of U.S. democracy and in the ability of checks and balances to repel a direct assault on the rule of law by a president who doesn’t play by any rules.
Initial leaks from the White House indicated that Trump might have underestimated the fear and outrage that would overtake U.S. politics and media once Comey’s sacking became public knowledge. The FBI director, after all, had made enemies on both sides of the political divide, his advisers reasoned, and no one will mourn his departure. Hillary Clinton and the Democrats viewed Comey as a prime reason for their loss in the November presidential elections because of his October 28 letter to Congress about Clinton’s emails. Many Republicans resented Comey for a diametrically opposed reason: they believed he had prematurely let Clinton off the hook in his July 5 press conference in which he announced that the FBI would not press for criminal charges.
Nonetheless, Trump’s attempt to use the Clinton affair as a pretext for firing Comey, as detailed in the letter written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, was met with widespread disbelief and ridicule. The news networks immediately brought up clips in which candidate Trump lauded Comey for the same reasons he is now citing as grounds for his dismissal. Trump will have to work overtime in order to convince anyone that the real reason for Comey’s firing isn’t his anger over the ongoing investigation of Russiagate and Comey’s refusal to publicly proclaim the president’s innocence. Comey, it should be remembered, is the third prominent law enforcement official that Trump has fired in as many months in office, after he sacked the previous Deputy Attorney General Sally Yate - who was in charge of the Russia investigation, but was ostensibly fired because of her refusal to defend the Muslim travel ban - as well as Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District in New York, who was said to be investigating some of Trump’s business activities.
The very fact that Kellyanne “Alternative Facts” Conway was brought out of her recent obscurity to rebuff the allegations against the president could be viewed as corroboration of their veracity. The glaring conflict of interest between the involvement of Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Comey’s dismissal and his previous recusal from the Russian investigation because of his failure to disclose his own meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kisliyak added even more fuel to the fire. And the timing of the expected visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to the White House gave commentator and comedians a precious peg for claiming that the Kremlin was now delivering its marching orders in person.
The word “unprecedented”, however, was a bit of a stretch. Trump isn’t the first president to fire his FBI director, but the second, although in the previous dismissal 24 years ago the suspect wasn’t the president, who was Bill Clinton, but the FBI director, William Sessions, who was accused of misusing FBI funds. The more relevant precedent, of course, is the so-called Saturday Night Massacre on October 20, 1973 in which President Richard Nixon ordered the dismissal of special prosecutor Archibald Cox who had subpoenaed him in connection with the Watergate investigation, forcing both the attorney general and his deputy to resign after refusing to carry out the president's order. But this is a precedent that Trump won’t want to hear about, because Nixon was indeed guilty of obstruction of justice in the cover-up of the Watergate break in, and because, in the end, he was forced to resign.
It’s too early to tell whether Comey’s sacking will ultimately prove fatal for Trump’s presidency or whether Washington will eventually digest it and move on. Given that we’re dealing with the impulsive Trump here, it’s possible that Comey’s dismissal is not an indication of the president’s guilt, but yet another manifestation of his capricious personality. He may have had enough of Comey because the latter refused to kowtow, or he may have grown bored with the relative tranquility that followed his success in getting the House of Representatives to approve passage of the American Health Care Act that is supposed to replace Obamacare. In this regard, Trump follows in the footsteps of Revisionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky, who wrote in the poem that became the anthem of the Beitar movement “Silence is Filth."
It’s reasonable to assume that the Comeygate storm won’t subside before Trump comes to Israel on May 23. It may affect his mood, but it’s hard to tell in what direction. Nixon was definitely distracted by the Watergate scandal when the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, delegating much of the crisis management to Henry Kissinger, but he nonetheless was involved enough to oversee the crucial airlift that replenished the dwindling supplies of the Israeli army and to oversee the near-nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union at the end of the war, a few short days after the Saturday Night Massacre. There are many right-wing Israelis who are probably hoping that preoccupation with the Comey controversy will deflect Trump’s attention away from his plans to advance an Israeli-Palestinian deal, but the contrary might come true as well. Perhaps Trump will try to shift the agenda and to prove his presidential mettle by pushing even more aggressively for what he describes as “the ultimate deal” in the Middle East.