Comey firing makes U.S. look weak compared to Europe

Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg News

The so-called Trump-Russia scandal is eating the United States from the inside, undermining the country’s global role at least as much as President Donald Trump’s erratic moves do. The firing Tuesday of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey is another dent in the U.S. leadership of the Western world, which comes against the background of a resurgent Europe.

There is an obvious political background to Comey’s dismissal. Trump’s official reason is that the director mishandled the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, and until he was fired Democrats agreed with that. Clinton herself has blamed her 2016 electoral defeat on “the combination of Jim Comey’ letter on Oct. 28” — the one that signaled the email investigation wasn’t over — and “Russian WikiLeaks.”

Now, however, Democrats are up in arms because Comey led the U.S. executive branch’s only investigation into the alleged Russian interference in the election. Apparently, Clinton’s backers hoped Comey would shed light on the other reason she lost, but now these hopes have been dashed.

The hullabaloo surrounding Comey’s firing doesn’t just politicize law enforcement and make the opposition party look silly — it makes Trump look as though he were afraid of the Russia-related investigation.

It reinforces the narrative that the U.S. president was helped to his post by a hostile foreign power, and it does so at a time when Emmanuel Macron is celebrating his victory in the French presidential election though the same toolkit — fake news, social network bots and hacking — was used against him. It makes the U.S. democracy look weak and unstable as one European country after another shows it can successfully resist populist challenges like Trump’s.

The current economic optics in Europe are only reinforcing that view. For years since the global financial crisis, the European Union was portrayed in the United States as the sick man of the Western world. That case can no longer be made in good faith.

In the first quarter, the U.S. economy grew at a 0.7 percent annual rate, while the euro area added 1.7 percent. This may merely be cyclical, and those clinging to the concept of a backward Europe point out its higher unemployment level. That, however, may be down to calculation methods: In the U.S., labor force participation has been going down in recent years while in Europe, it has remained largely stable.

As the economy begins to look up, discontent with the EU and with centrist national governments is beginning to fade. Polls show an increased level of support for the European project, and moderate, pro-EU forces have recently won elections from Bulgaria to France. The trend is bound to continue in Germany in the fall.

In every one of the European countries quashing populist revolts, the Kremlin has interfered, to the best of its ability. President Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, signed an official cooperation agreement with Austria’s far right Freedom Party, whose candidate lost the presidential election late last year.

The Russian propaganda machine backed Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands, and it was badly beaten by the party of centrist Prime Minister Mark Rutte despite initially leading in the polls. France’s National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, received Russian funding and propaganda backing; pro-Russian conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon also had the support of Russian state media and the Kremlin’s internet machine — both suffered resounding defeats.

In other words, Russia has been failing consistently to subvert European democracies, young and shaky and long-established ones alike, despite Russia’s geographic proximity and stronger spy and contact networks than in the United States. And yet, with the political elite of the most powerful nation on earth, the U.S. continues to kick about allegations that its leader was elected thanks to a Russian effort — and that leader reacting angrily to the accusations and flailing about to make things even worse.

In an October, 2016 speech, Putin ridiculed the nascent Trump-Russia story. “Does anyone seriously think that Russia can in any way influence the American people’s choice? Is America some kind of banana republic or what? America is a great power. Please correct me if I’m wrong.”

Instead of correcting Putin, Americans are checking the definition of “banana republic;” commentaries on the “banana republic” page of the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s website reveal that people are worried their country might be turning into one.

Leading the Western world is impossible from this position, especially if Europe continues to demonstrate a healthier alternative. The United States is still a powerful democracy, and there are more elections to fight. In the next ones, both parties — and, hopefully, third forces — can field better candidates and resist outside interference as effectively as the Europeans have done. That will do more to restore the respect the United States has been losing than any outcome of any Russia-related investigation.

But for now, the more Trump resists the inquiry, the harder it will be to move on from one.

lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist and founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founder of the opinion website Slon.ru.