The firing of James Comey: Psychology helps explain what Trump got wrong

People protest Comey’s firing in Los Angeles on May 10, 2017. AP Photo/Reed Saxon

Why has President Trump failed to convince anyone other than his ardent supporters that he was justified in firing FBI Director James Comey? Even more, why did he fail to realize that the firing would call up strong objections, not only from Democrats, but from many Republicans?

The psychology of perception and decision-making helps us here. As I have shown in several books, assuming people are completely rational will mislead us. We need to grasp what people see – and what they miss – if we are to fathom why they behave as they do.

Not facing painful trade-offs

The obvious explanation for Trump’s failure is what many observers see as his narcissism and consequent inability to understand how others might mistrust him. But he also displays a keen sense of his adversaries. His close advisers like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Vice President Mike Pence, who have different personality types, seem to have similarly failed to anticipate the outcry.

Instead, my research shows that much of the explanation lies in a common psychological difficulty in facing painful trade-offs and realizing the costs of our preferred course of action. In a form of wishful thinking, when people come to believe that doing something is necessary, they have trouble seeing the obstacles and costs.

As he said himself, Trump felt it was necessary to remove Comey. This belief closed him off from a more accurate perception of the political environment. His failure was facilitated by his knowledge that the Democrats had excoriated Comey for what they saw as his unfair treatment of Hillary Clinton during the campaign. From this he jumped to the conclusion that they would applaud the removal of Comey without taking account of the fact that the context was now very different.

Trump, like many people, neglected the crucial fact that perception is strongly guided by the framework that observers bring to an event, which is why people so often are surprised when others interpret their behavior in different ways than they intended.

In fact, our minds work like a computer’s autocomplete. They quickly fill in what they are predisposed to expect. Those predisposed to be suspicious of Trump will naturally see the firing as a power grab. Trump’s supporters will not only accept his explanation at face value, but will be stunned that the opponents can be so blind. Psychology as well as politics helps explain why the firing will then make the county even more polarized.

Trump, who prides himself on being decisive, probably shares the commonsense sentiment that actions speak louder than words. In fact, the reverse is often true. People try to make sense of what others are doing, and even decisive actions rarely speak for themselves. That is why political leaders – and most of us in our everyday lives – usually explain not only what we have done, but why we have done it. We give reasons and provide an interpretive framework within which our behavior is intelligible and, we hope, appropriate.

People sometimes think that they control the meaning of their behavior. But they don’t; those who are perceiving and interacting with them do because it is the latter who respond. Of course Trump can fire Comey by simply writing a letter, but the political impact of this move rests with how others see it, which is something the president can influence, but cannot control.

Trump’s errors

Trump made two major errors.

First, as people search for explanation and meaning, they look for consistency.

In explaining why he fired Comey, Trump had an uphill battle because many people already viewed him as vindictive and unable to understand the checks and balances crucial to the American system. He compounded this problem by providing different explanations for the firing. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer first told us that the reason was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s letter criticizing Comey for his behavior toward Hillary Clinton during the campaign, but Trump subsequently admitted that the decision was made before then, pointing to Comey’s supposed lack of support within the FBI, and then shifting to the argument that he was incompetent and a “showboat.” Leaving aside the plausibility of these arguments – which of course would be judged differently by people with different views of Trump and of Comey – the inconsistencies made it hard for those who were open to persuasion to develop a stable and convincing understanding of his reasons.

The second wound was even more directly self-inflicted. His brief letter to Comey said, “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.” According to Stephen Hiltner of The New York Times, this was so striking that the editors decided to print the letter right under the headline the next day.

For critics, this was the smoking gun since they were predisposed to believe that Trump had fired Comey because he was too zealous in investigating connections between the Russian hacking and the Trump campaign. Trump presumably meant this sentence to dispel this interpretation, but he neglected the elemental psychological point that his denial just called attention to it.

Is this another Watergate, and this firing like Nixon’s dismissal of Archibald Cox as the special prosecutor when he demanded that the president turn over the White House tapes? Probably not, but my work shows that our understanding of events is strongly shaped by the historical analogies that immediately come to mind. Although Trump is in many ways different from Nixon, it was almost inevitable that the sense that this was Nixonian would precede rather than follow analysis in the minds of most of his critics. A few days later Trump reinforced this impression, presumably inadvertently, by saying that Comey should hope that his conversations with Trump had not been taped.

The media also saw the firing through their ideological lenses. Not only was the coverage provided by MSNBC and Fox News markedly different, but more subtly, The New York Times’ headline was: “Trump Fires Comey amid Russia Inquiry,” while the Wall Street Journal said “Trump Fires James Comey as FBI Chief.”

Liberals like me pride ourselves on being more sophisticated and on using what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman called System 2, which is slow and careful thinking. But how many of them us have paused in our denunciations of Trump and calls for an unimpeded investigation into the Russian connections to ask whether such a strong instrument of state power as the FBI should be free to act without the supervision of elected officials? Do we really think that a return to the J. Edgar Hoover era is healthy for democracy? It is all too easy for us to overlook inconvenient questions and to see only what we need and expect.

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