The controversial decision to abruptly fire FBI Director James Comey has mired President Trump in a political morass from which it will be very difficult to extricate himself. Handled differently, Comey’s ouster could have been supported by both Democrats and Republicans, but the timing and execution of Trump’s decision throws Trump’s motive and competence into question.
There has been bipartisan agreement that Comey bungled the handling of the Clinton email investigation during the campaign albeit for different reasons. Republicans point to Comey’s press conference and decision not to recommend that charges be filed against Ms. Clinton last July. Democrats believe that his eleventh-hour letter to Congress on October 28 probably cost Clinton the election. In recent months, Democrats in particular have been calling for Mr. Comey’s head.
President Trump was justified in firing Comey, but the manner of the dismissal has caused more problems that it has solved. An easy way to handle the problem of Comey’s performance would have been to simply ask for Comey’s resignation as the new administration moved into Washington. Instead, Trump, who had alternately berated and praised Comey on both the email investigation as well as the accusations of Russian interference in the election, invited him to stay on as head of the FBI for the remainder of his 10-year term. Trump then waited four months before firing Comey in a very abrupt manner. Trump’s letter dismissing Comey and letters recommending the dismissal from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein are all dated May 9, suggesting that the firing was high priority that was handled quickly.
Comey was not given any advance warning and was not even in Washington to receive the president’s letter. The Los Angeles Times reports that Comey learned of the president’s decision while speaking with FBI agents in Los Angeles. The news was announced on a television screen in the room where the meeting was taking place.
“He was caught flat-footed,” a source said.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told CNN that the decision to remove Comey was not made hastily. “The President has lost confidence in Director Comey and, frankly, he’d been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected,” she said. Sanders added that the decision was based on concerns that Rosenstein had raised on Monday, prompting the president to ask him to put a recommendation in writing.
Sanders said that the “big catalyst” for the decision was last week’s congressional testimony in which Comey discussed holding the July 2016 press conference without notifying his superiors. “Director Comey made a pretty startling revelation that he had essentially taken a stick of dynamite and thrown it into the Department of Justice by going around the chain of command,” she said. “That is simply not allowed.”
Nevertheless, Comey’s comments were not an unexpected revelation and dealt with an event that occurred 10 months ago. There was seemingly no reason to execute the firing in such a hurried and haphazard manner, especially since Comey’s boss at the time, Obama Administration Attorney General Loretta Lynch, had ample time to take disciplinary action of her own after the incident.
If not the Clinton press conference, then what other pressing reason would there be to fire Comey? The obvious answer for many people is the investigation of Russia ties to members of the Trump campaign. Even though Trump somewhat strangely thanks Comey as he fires him “for informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation,” the same was not true of other members of Trump’s campaign staff.
Far from being behind the president, the Russia investigation seemed to be ramping up. CNN reported that federal prosecutors had issued subpoenas to associates of Michael Flynn, the National Security Advisor and campaign advisor that Trump fired earlier this year for lying about his communications with the Russian ambassador. The Washington Post reported Comey had requested more funds for the Russia investigation from Rod Rosenstein, the same Justice Department official who recommended that the president fire him.
While the evidence that the firing was an attempt to short-circuit the Russia investigation is purely circumstantial, the clumsy manner in which the edict was handed down has fueled suspicion and criticism of both Trump and the Justice Department. If Trump should dismiss Andrew McCabe, the current Acting Director of the FBI who has deep connections to the Democrats and the Clintons, as some rumors suggest, he would appear all the more guilty of a cover-up.
At this point, regardless of whether he fired Comey to stop the Russia investigation or not, the president seems to have been inept in his handling of the situation. If Trump did want to stifle the investigation, the firing was a transparent act that was unlikely to accomplish its goal. Comey’s firing may even make it more likely that a special prosecutor or independent congressional panel is established to investigate the matter.
If quashing the investigation was not Trump’s goal, then he certainly made it appear as though he had something to hide with the abrupt timing and the callous way that Comey learned that he was out of a job. A more discreet way of making the announcement, such as privately demanding that Comey resign to spend more time with his family, would have benefitted Trump as well as the FBI director.
Handled differently, the replacement of Comey could have been a unifying act that would have won President Trump praise from both parties. As it is, the president has further alienated even members of his own party and ensured that the Russia scandal will not go away anytime soon.
Did the president attempt a clumsy cover-up of an investigation that was getting too close to home or did he fire Comey for the right reasons in a rushed and awkward manner. Neither possibility is a good one, but one is considerably worse and more dangerous than the other.