With the continued mayhem emanating from the Oval Office these weeks, there have been comparisons made to the later stages of the Nixon administration. Nixon became a recluse in his office as the vise of Watergate scandals began to tighten toward the final twist. Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre certainly deserves to be looked at along side Mr. Trump’s bizarre actions in firing FBI Director James Comey. Like the Watergate issues, the original actions are not what caused me to choose “bizarre” in the previous sentence. No argument that Mr. Trump has the authority to fire Comey. Although unprecedented, it is not bizarre. It was the timing, organization, and crass execution of Dir. Comey’s dismissal that were truly mind-boggling.
As tempting as it is to go on and on about Nixon’s paranoia compared to Trump’s, I’d like to sashay back further in time to another era and another president.
Andrew Johnson took over as the 17th President after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Times were tough at the end of the long and devastating Civil War. Making matters worse, Johnson seemed to lack a moral compass and any strength of conviction.
The Secretary of War was Edwin Stanton. Either the Secretary of the Army, or the Secretary of Defense, depending on how one draws the lines of linage, has replaced that cabinet post. Secretary of War was important, third in the line of succession, during the Civil War. Stanton was famously part of Lincoln’s Team of Rivals that included Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and Treasury Secretary, later Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon Chase.
During Reconstruction Johnson pledged to continue Lincoln’s plan for rebuilding the nation. As the specifics were being worked out, Johnson, who was sympathetic to the southern cause, wanted to make reinstatement into the union dependent upon simply ratifying the 13th Amendment. Republicans balked. They wanted to assure the former slaves were granted the right to vote (15th Amendment) as a condition of returning to statehood. Stanton opposed Johnson’s seeming amnesty and Johnson decided to fire him. Johnson asked Ulysses Grant, the general and hero of the Civil War, to take on the job. Grant declined. He opposed Johnson’s over friendly views toward the South. Plus, he was preparing to run for president in 1868, likely against Johnson. Johnson then appointed Lorenzo Thomas, the adjutant general to lead the War Department.
Thomas’s appointment was a disaster. This is where I’d like to draw a parallel and send a caveat to our current president. This appointment took no regard to the applicant’s qualifications for the job. Lorenzo Thomas was a supporter of Andrew Johnson and sympathetic with his politics. He had no business being Secretary of War. In the succeeding three months, Stanton refused to leave office and holed up in the War Department building while Thomas basically roamed the streets doing nothing with the official title tacked to his name. This turned into a fiasco.
Congress ruled that Johnson’s dismissal of Stanton was illegal and started impeachment proceedings against the president. The House did indeed impeach Johnson and during the Senate trial, it became clear that Johnson’s presidency was on thin ice. Senator James Grimes of Iowa was disposed to vote against removal, but was dismayed with Thomas’s appointment. He went to Johnson and said that if Thomas were replaced with a competent Secretary of War, he’d vote to keep Johnson on. For self-preservation, Johnson fired Thomas and replaced him with John Schofield, a decorated and esteemed military leader. Schofield did not agree with Johnson one whit, but was the best man for the job at that time.
Grimes was good to his word and voted against removing Johnson. The vote ended 35 for removal and 19 against, one vote shy of the supermajority needed to take Johnson out of office.
The point of this history lesson is simply this: We need the best-qualified and most distinguished people to lead our country that we can possibly find. Personal gain, political compatibility, or appeasement of any political base should be way, way, way on the back burner.
Mr. Trump had a chance to shine with his recent Supreme Court Justice nominee. When he chose Neil Gorsuch, Trump chose the name from a list given him by the Heritage Foundation, part of his base support, and turned the rest over to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump passed the buck and didn’t get overly involved in the confirmation process. Justice Gorsuch was certainly qualified, but perhaps not the best pick for the times. Mr. Trump didn’t shine.
Now that the president will again choose a person to lead another completely independent division of government, the FBI, he has a second chance to buff up the glow of his reputation. If Mr. Trump nominates someone from his campaign staff, an elected official from Congress, or a partisan nominee of any ilk, rust will continue to corrode and eat away at his presidency.
The new FBI director needs to be someone with experience and a reputation for independence. The new director needs to be another John Schofield, not from the swamp like Lorenzo Thomas.
P.S.: It wouldn’t hurt if the nominee were a woman or a person of color–they are out there if he’ll just look.