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Historian of Fascism: Why Trump Firing FBI Director Comey Amid Russia Probe is So Worrisome

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As more details come to light about President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, which reportedly came just days after he asked the Justice Department for more resources to expand the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election, we speak with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Her recent piece for CNN is headlined "Trump at his most dangerous," and she is currently working on a book entitled "Strongmen: From Mussolini to Trump."

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Seattle, Washington. More details are coming to light about President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. The New York Times is reporting Comey’s dismissal came just days after he asked the Justice Department for more resources to expand the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election. Comey made the appeal to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote the memo President Trump later used to justify Comey’s firing.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports Rosenstein has threatened to quit after the White House cast him as the main instigator in the firing of Comey. The White House has given conflicting explanations as to why Comey was dismissed. During a press briefing Wednesday, Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Comey committed "atrocities" when investigating former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails, and cited the letter from Rosenstein as having contributed to Trump’s decision to fire Comey now.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think also having a letter like the one that he received and having that conversation that outlined the basic just atrocities in circumventing the chain of command in the Department of Justice.

AMY GOODMAN: When Huckabee was asked when President Trump lost confidence in Comey, this was her response.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think that Director Comey has shown over the last several months, and, frankly, the last year, a lot of missteps and mistakes. And certainly, I think that, as you’ve seen from many of the comments from Democrat members, including Senator Schumer, they didn’t think he should be there. They thought he should be gone. Frankly, I think it’s startling that Democrats aren’t celebrating this, since they’ve been calling for it for so long.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, on Wednesday, President Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office. Among those participating in the meeting were Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, whose contacts with Trump advisers are under investigation by the FBI, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. After Trump’s opening remarks, a reporter asked him why he fired FBI Director Comey.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Everybody knows Dr. Kissinger. And we’re right now talking about Russia and various other matters. But it’s an honor to have Henry Kissinger with us. He’s been a friend of mine for a long time. And thank you very much for being here. Appreciate it.

REPORTER: Mr. President, why did you fire Director Comey? Why did you fire Director Comey?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Because he wasn’t doing a good job, very simply. He was not doing a good job.

AMY GOODMAN: As a candidate, Donald Trump cheered Comey’s tough stance on Clinton’s use of a personal email and private internet server while she was secretary of state.

Trump is the first president since Richard Nixon to fire a law enforcement official who was overseeing an investigation tied to the White House. President Bill Clinton dismissed William Sessions amidst allegations of ethical lapses in 1993. As the developments fuel concerns Trump is trying to undermine a probe that could threaten his presidency, Capitol Hill Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected calls for a special prosecutor into the Russia investigation that came from outraged Democrats, like Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: This is not just a scandal. The president’s actions are neither Republican nor Democratic. They’re authoritarian. This is an effort to undo the ties that bind our democratic form of government. All of us, both sides of the aisle, must now put country over party.

AMY GOODMAN: In his first public comment on his firing, former FBI Director James Comey wrote a letter to agents at the FBI urging them to remain, quote, "a rock of competence, honesty, and independence," noting, quote, "I have long believed that a president can fire an FBI director for any reason, or for no reason at all. I’m not going to spend time on the decision or the way it was executed. I hope you won’t either," he wrote.

All this comes as the Senate Intelligence Committee Wednesday subpoenaed former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for documents related to its investigation into Russia’s election meddling. Former FBI Director Comey was supposed to be a star witness for the committee, but acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe will now testify instead.

For more, we go to New York. We’re joined by Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. She wrote a recent piece for CNN headlined "Trump at his most dangerous." She’s currently working on a book entitled Strongmen: From Mussolini to Trump.

Professor, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about, first, the firing and your thoughts as you see this go down, President Trump firing the FBI director, James Comey, who was investigating the Trump campaign?

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Sure. You know, some people, including Republicans, are now trying to spin this as Trump being Trump, an impulsive action that was just out of grievance. I see it differently. Trump is an authoritarian, as I’ve been arguing for some time. And when he says that Comey wasn’t doing his job, he means Comey was obstructing him from using the office of the presidency to further his personal goals, because authoritarians believe that the institutions should serve them and not the other way around. So I see this as completely consistent with his temperament and his agenda of colonizing the country to make it serve his personal interest.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the ways you see this trend of authoritarianism being expressed by Trump? I mean, he’s only been in office now for a few months.

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Sure. Well, you know, during the campaign, he started with a very important point, which was forging these bonds with the public that were based on loyalty to him. And it’s come up repeatedly that he felt Comey wasn’t loyal to him. And loyalty is the most important thing, because authoritarians forge bonds that are based on their person and not allegiance to a party or a principle. Trump doesn’t care too much about the GOP. It got him to power, it gave him the nomination, but it’s just a vehicle for him. So, that’s part of it.

The other thing is, a senior—a former senior intelligence official said that the Comey—the way that he fired Comey was "like an execution," in quotes. And, you know, the method, and he did it—Trump is a—he’s a proponent of the doctrine of surprise. And this was a kind of threat to the FBI, to the American public, which is consistent with the kind of dangerous persona he has had. And I want to remind everyone that in January 2016, when he was on the campaign trail, he said, "I could stand on 5th Avenue and shoot someone and wouldn’t lose any followers." This was, for me, a turning point. It meant that he was giving us a message that he considered himself to be above the law. And he was testing the GOP, which is what authoritarians do. They test, on their way up and once they’re in power, to see how much they can get away with. And the GOP rewarded him with the nomination. So he feels emboldened, now he’s in power, to do exactly this kind of thing.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Democrat of New York.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: This is part of a deeply troubling pattern from the Trump administration. They fired Sally Yates. They fired Preet Bharara. And now they’ve fired Director Comey, the very man leading the investigation. This does not seem to be a coincidence.

AMY GOODMAN: And speaking on CNN Wednesday, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut called the Trump decision to fire Comey a "looming constitutional crisis."

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: I disagree with James Comey in some of his decisions, but I never advocated that he be fired, particularly before an inspector general within the Department of Justice was looking at those actions. Rod Rosenstein, in effect, preempted that ongoing internal investigation, fired him, using a pretense that is laughable—the decisions on the Clinton email some 10 months ago. And what we have now is really a looming constitutional crisis that is deadly serious.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump lashed out at Senator Blumenthal. Instead of addressing the comments, Trump attacked Blumenthal’s military record. In a series of tweets, Trump wrote, quote, "Watching Senator Richard Blumenthal speak of Comey is a joke. 'Richie' devised one of the greatest military frauds in U.S. history. For years, as a pol in Connecticut, Blumenthal would talk of his great bravery and conquests in Vietnam–except he [was never] there. When caught, he cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness...and now he is judge & jury. He should be the one who is investigated for his acts." Well, Senator Blumenthal returned to CNN later on Wednesday and was asked by Anderson Cooper how serious this could get.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: It may well produce another United States v. Nixon on a subpoena that went to the United States Supreme Court. It may well produce impeachment proceedings, although we’re very far from that possibility.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, can you talk about what these senators are saying and what you see might be, though you would be quite prescient if you could say, what’s about to unfold?

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yes, no one can tell what’s going to happen. In the past, once elites are coopted to an authoritarian, it can be very difficult, for pragmatic reasons, for them to jump ship. This is not, strictly speaking, a constitutional crisis, in that it was perfectly legal for Trump to fire the FBI director. What’s at issue is the politicization of the judiciary and intelligence, which he’s been doing all along, and the method. And so, this depends on what the GOP is going to do, and I’m a bit pessimistic about their having the political will, the unified political will, to see this through to get rid of Trump.

I also want to highlight, though, that the comparison with Watergate leaves out the very, very important foreign dimension. This is a Russia—Trump-Russia probe. And firing Comey in the way he did was a very important message that Trump sent to the world, number one, to all of his fellow authoritarians. And we’ve seen how he calls the president of Turkey. He invites Duterte of the Philippines to the White House. And he has gone out of his way to forge ties and show allegiance to this kind of leadership, and, above all, to his Russian client. And I felt it was such a tragedy for our democracy to see Trump in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister the day after this happened. This is a very strong signal to his Russian client and to authoritarians all over the world that he means business, and the business is their business.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s very interesting, the headline I just read at the top of the show, yes, on the same day President Trump hosted the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Russia’s ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, at the White House. Politico reports Trump invited Lavrov after requests from Russian President Putin. A White House spokesman said, "He chose to receive him because Putin asked him to. Putin did specifically ask on the call when they last talked." The White House faced some criticism for allowing the Russian state media agency TASS inside the White House to take photographs while barring all U.S. media. Your thoughts?

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: I felt terribly sad for our democracy when I saw that. Being also a historian of propaganda, you cannot overestimate the impact of acquiescing to a request to have the foreign minister in there. And apparently, you know, news reports are that he was—Trump was duped a bit, because he was told the photographer was the personal photographer of the foreign minister, when in fact the person was also taking pictures for TASS, the state agency. And think of the impact that has within Russia and the world, and the U.S. media was not allowed in. And besides the security concerns, which have been raised with having Russians in the Oval Office with a photographer for—into the most sensitive space of America, it sends a message that Russia has won and that Trump is indeed willing to do what they say. So I felt this was a great tragedy and a kind of culmination of all the things that have been said and alleged during this Russia-Trump investigation so far.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ben-Ghiat, you are a professor of history and Italian studies at NYU, New York University, and you’re writing a book comparing Trump to Mussolini. Can you explain?

RUTH BEN-GHIAT: Yes. So, I’m pushed many times in the media to label Trump a fascist. And I’ve never done that, because Trump is not aiming to establish a one-party state. It’s too much work, I imagine, and he doesn’t need to. The thing about authoritarians today—and we can look at what’s happening in Turkey and elsewhere, and even in Russia—you don’t need to have a dictatorship in the classic sense to accomplish your goals. You can intimidate people. You can try and control the press. You can attack the judiciary, the media, the institutions, hollowing them out, without having to ban parties in the traditional fascist manner.

That said, there are many similarities. One of them I mentioned before. There’s this testing period constantly that the authoritarian is doing to see how much he can get away with. What is the appetite of the political elites and the public for violence? And this goes back to Trump’s comment—right?—that he could shoot someone. This is quite extraordinary. And Mussolini did the same thing, as did Hitler. And the other element is that people don’t take these people seriously until it’s too late. So, I’ve been trying to warn the public, along with many other people, about the dangers, including this article you mentioned most recently, the dangers that these men bring with them. And by the time people realize, it’s too late.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. We’ll link to your piece over at CNN headlined "Trump at his most dangerous." Professor Ben-Ghiat is working on a book called Strongmen: From Mussolini to Trump.

When we come back, Kshama Sawant joins us, the Socialist city councilmember here in Seattle, Washington. Stay with us.

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