It matters less that James Comey was fired than why he was fired.

President Donald Trump reportedly is surprised that an outraged public is making this distinction. He played the American people for dummies, as he so often does, and this time his cynical move may be backfiring.

If Trump had fired Comey as director of the FBI back in January, in the first days of his presidency, citing the same pretext he used this week — Comey’s bumbled handling of an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails — Democrats and Republicans alike might have objected less strongly.

EDITORIAL

Comey did show poor judgment. He should not have publicly discussed Clinton’s inappropriate emails just days before the November election, even if candidate Trump was delighted at the time.

But Trump did not fire Comey in January. He fired Comey on Tuesday, 109 days into his presidency. He fired Comey only after fuming for months about the FBI’s investigation into Russian hacking in the 2016 election, hacking which may have involved the president’s own campaign staff. Just last week, Comey asked the Justice Department for a sizable increase in money and staff so he could do the job right.

Trump fired Comey to get him off his back. That is the obvious explanation. He pulled a Richard Nixon, who as president in 1973 fired Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor looking into Nixon’s Watergate crimes.

That did not work out well for Nixon. Nobody was fooled. The backlash led to his ultimate humiliation and resignation.

And nobody should be fooled now.

Every member of Congress, Republicans as well as Democrats, should finally put partisan politics aside and call Trump out. Or will the president’s apologists continue to betray their principles?

Several steps should be taken immediately:

  • All evidence collected by the FBI should be gathered up and safeguarded. That’s a given, but with this White House it cannot be taken for granted. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was among those who most forcefully pressed Trump to dismiss Comey. Nobody should feel confident that Sessions, so closely tied to the Trump campaign last year, won’t take this opportunity to deep-six the FBI probe.
  • A new FBI director must be appointed who, by anybody’s reckoning, is above partisan politics and unbeholden to Trump.
  • Now more than ever, Congress should appoint a tough special prosecutor to launch an independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. An ongoing investigation by the House lost much of its credibility when the Republican chairman of the investigative committee, Devin Nunes — who has since recused himself — was found to be working back channels of the White House to tip Trump to confidential information. Now the integrity of the FBI probe will be called into question.

Unfortunately, on this final point, key Republican leaders wasted no time Wednesday before rolling over and playing dead for Trump. Despite increasingly bipartisan calls for the appointment of a special prosecutor, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, dismissed the need. A special prosecutor, he said, would only “impede the current work being done.”

The news of Comey’s firing hit hard and fast Tuesday evening. The ramifications will take time to sort out. But our own first thought upon hearing the news was pretty simple: Trump thinks the American people are stupid.

Time and again, the president has trotted out false facts and dubious assertions — about Barack Obama’s birthplace, about voter fraud, about the size of his inaugural crowd, about whether President Obama tapped his phones — and he’s doing so again.

The White House insists Comey was dismissed because of the poor judgment he showed in discussing Hillary Clinton’s emails. But Trump’s true problem with Comey — the FBI chief’s annoyingly independent streak in investigating any Russian connections — was transparent in Trump’s own dismissal letter to Comey:

“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.”

This has nothing to do with the Russian investigation, Trump is saying, but thanks for saying I’m not under investigation, and we both know I probably am or will be soon. So, Mr. Comey, go away.

When Nixon fired Cox, Americans flooded the White House with angry telegrams. More than ever, they felt sure their president was covering something up.

More than ever, we’re feeling the same about President Trump.