James Comey.” Credit: Rich Gerard

May 9, 2017; New York Times

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump fired James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the timing is notable. Though Trump cited concerns with Comey’s handling of the investigation into former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails, commentators have noted that Comey admitted in his congressional hearing last week that some of President Trump’s advisers are also under investigation for possible contacts with Russia.

We should begin by acknowledging that Trump is perfectly within his rights to fire the FBI director; what’s questionable here is the motivation. Media reports have circulated that state that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on whose recommendation in part Trump based his firing of Comey, was told to find reasons to fire Comey after his congressional testimony last week. (The newly-confirmed Deputy Attorney General, Rod J. Rosenstein, who supervises the FBI Director, issued his own memorandum detailing the rationale for recommending Comey’s firing.)

Moves like this, which threaten the rights Americans have to interrogate their government, disagree with its policies, and hold its officials accountable to common laws, should not be taken lightly. Timothy Snyder of Yale University, who believes “it’s pretty much inevitable” that President Trump will attempt a coup, said, “We made a move towards intellectual isolationism in a world where no kind of isolationism is possible…there is certainly nothing which puts us in a different category than other people who have failed, whether it’s historically or whether it’s now.”

U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) said in a statement,

President Trump’s firing of Director Comey sets a deeply alarming precedent as multiple investigations into possible Trump campaign or administration collusion with Russia remain ongoing, including an FBI investigation. This episode is disturbingly reminiscent of the Saturday Night Massacre during the Watergate scandal and the national turmoil that it caused. We are careening ever closer to a Constitutional crisis, and this development only underscores why we must appoint a special prosecutor to fully investigate any dealings the Trump campaign or administration had with Russia.

Plato said that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” Joe Scarborough of NBC, a former Republican congressman, turned this fear into an action call: “Hey, Republicans. Stand the Hell up. This is your moment to be counted,” he tweeted.

Nonprofits, too, along with all American citizens, should heed that call. Civil liberties have been eroded all over the globe in the last year: Viktor Orbán threatened academic institutions in Hungary, Poland’s free press is restricted, and Turkey recently made its Constitution much less democratic and imprisoned tens of thousands of activists and civil servants. Now is not the time to go gently into that good night; it is the time to see the democratic landscape with a clear eye and stand up for civil society and civil rights.— Erin Rubin