The Slatest

If It Happened There: Political Chaos as Regime Purges Powerful Security Chief

Former allies turned rivals.

Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images

The latest installment of an occasional series in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.

WASHINGTON, United States—The surprise dismissal of a powerful security services chief Tuesday night is widely seen here as a part of strongman President Donald Trump’s efforts to sideline critics and consolidate power, raising concerns about the state of democracy and the rule of law in this fragile but strategically vital North American country.

James Comey was the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a vast domestic intelligence agency with extensive surveillance powers. For much of the 20th century, the agency operated with near impunity and little accountability. Even presidents feared its vast powers. In recent years, the democratically elected state has managed to rein in the bureau, but it can still play an influential role in the country’s political system, as shown by Comey during the United States’ most recent presidential election.

The director was once seen as an ally of the Trump regime. During the election, he released damaging information about a scandal involving Trump’s rival, center-left candidate Hillary Clinton, giving a crucial boost to Trump’s far-right, populist insurgency in the final weeks before the vote and potentially contributing to his victory.

But relations between Comey and the Trump regime had soured due to the bureau’s ongoing investigation of connections between several key members of the president’s inner circle and the government of Russia. Trump had come into power promising to normalize relations with America’s longtime foe, but revelations of communications between his advisers and Russia, as well as allegations that Russia sabotaged Clinton’s campaign, have raised questions of untoward influence. These concerns are not likely to be quelled by the fact that Russia’s foreign minister is visiting the U.S. capital Wednesday, the day after the firing.

The dismissal of Comey, carried out via a letter delivered by the president’s former personal bodyguard while the director was traveling outside the capital, has thrown the government into disarray. Opposition lawmakers, previously among Comey’s staunchest critics for his role in the email investigation, are attacking the purge as an unconstitutional power grab. Meanwhile members of the ruling party, traditionally deferential to the country’s security services, are defending the move as necessary to restore public confidence.

Some figures within the Trump regime have suggested, darkly, that there is a parallel “deep state”—a shadowy conspiracy comprised of members of the intelligence agencies, loyalists of the former regime, and media figures tied to the country’s elite coastal establishment—working to undermine Trump and his allies. Most international experts believe these fears are exaggerated, though they note that in byzantine hallways of power in the American capital, it can sometimes be difficult to disentangle conspiracy theories from reality.

Still rated “Free” by the nongovernmental monitoring organization Freedom House, the United States is fiercely proud of its democratic tradition and the independence of its judiciary. When Trump, an ultranationalist former oligarch who has in the past questioned the motives of judges who rule against him, took power in January, many experts feared his tenure could erode the influence and independence of America’s democratic institutions. So far, most of those fears have not come to pass, as some of Trump’s most controversial initiatives have been blocked by the judiciary and the legislature. But a key legislative victory early this month—rolling back most of the previous regime’s health care initiatives—as well as this latest purge have reignited concerns among opposition leaders that the country’s weakened institutions may not be enough to rein in Trump’s ambitions.

This latest move may spark more of the mass protests against the Trump government seen in the capital in recent months. International NGOs say they are monitoring the situation closely.