“UnPresidented” is a new weekly column discussing the transition and first days of the Trump administration.
In an abrupt move Tuesday afternoon, President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. The stated reason behind the firing, according to an official memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, was Comey’s handling of the all-so-infamous Hillary Clinton email case. Rosenstein characterizes Comey as the focal point of bipartisan anger, and criticizes him for releasing “derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation.”
Rosenstein’s explanation may seem satisfactory at first, after all, there was a lot of ire directed at Comey throughout the presidential election season. But the official story doesn’t quite add up. If, as Trump and various spokespeople have asserted since Tuesday, he was considering firing Comey since the first day, then why not do so in January instead of waiting until months after the supposed offense? It’s not as though politicians from either major party were calling for Comey’s head.
And Rosenstein uses the October letter by Comey, which some have regarded as a reason Trump won the presidency, to justify Comey’s departure. Never mind that just last week, Trump tweeted that “Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!” In the days leading up to the election, Trump also characterized the letter as something that “brought back [Comey’s] reputation” after his summer announcement that the Clinton investigation was closed, and largely praised the move. Though Trump may have somewhat of a reputation for his malleable positions, it is out of character for his administration to fire someone over an action that arguably benefitted his bid for the presidency.
There have been a few recent developments in the Clinton case, namely Comey saying the thought that he in some way affected the election made him feel “mildly nauseous” and the revelation that he mis-testified in early May when he said that Clinton aide Huma Abedin had forwarded hundreds of thousands of emails to her husband’s computer (the FBI now believes most of the emails were simply backed up on said computer). But none of it did anything to suggest that the Clinton case was anything more than an excuse. After all, Trump hasn’t pursued the email case further than late-night tweets, not acting on his promise to send Clinton to jail.
What is more important is Comey’s role in the investigation of Trump himself. Prior to his firing, Comey was the top official leading the investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia during the election. And it is for this reason that the image of President Richard Nixon’s infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” was instantly conjured by many upon the news. In the midst of Watergate, perhaps the most notorious political scandal in American history, the aforementioned moniker “Saturday Night Massacre” refers to Nixon’s firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Cox had been investigating the Watergate building break-in that eventually lead to Nixon’s demise. When Cox subpoenaed Nixon for the copies of tapes that recorded Oval Office conversation, Nixon moved to fire him. Both the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General at the time refused to do so and resigned, though the third-in-command eventually fired Cox on the Nixon administration’s orders.
It was clear that Nixon was attempting to use presidential power to interfere with his own criminal investigation. The Trump administration’s firing of Comey, though much less transparent, likely is attempting the same thing. The idea of foreign involvement in U.S. presidential elections is largely unheard of, and if the investigations find that Trump had been working with Russia closely, it would likely be a huge political scandal. But there still are some main differences between Nixon’s move and Trump’s. For one, Comey’s role in the government was not specific to the Russia investigation.
Though Trump is well-within his rights to fire Comey, he certainly breaks with history in doing so. Especially since Watergate, presidents have been careful not to take moves against FBI directors, who should be seen as independent agents in order to maintain their, and the president’s, credibility. The only other case in which a president fired such a high-ranking FBI official came from Bill Clinton. Though Clinton also fired an FBI director, the case was utterly different; the director in question, William Sessions, was under investigation by the Justice Department as a result of ethical concerns at the time. It is important to note that when Clinton was under investigation for his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, he took no action against the director at the time.
Thus the firing of Comey can, and should, be seen as highly unusual. In doing so, the Trump administration seems like it has something to hide. It doesn’t help that reports have circulated suggesting that Comey asked for more funds for the Russia investigation just a few days before he was fired. This certainly seems to be less of a case of an FBI director acting negligently, and more the result of Trump’s personal inability to withstand slight criticism and any actions against him.
Though the Trump administration suggested that a majority of FBI agents supported the move, the acting director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, told Congress on Thursday that “Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.” McCabe also asserted that the Russia investigation is continuing on unperturbed in Comey’s absence. But it is important to note that the lead Justice Department figure on the investigation, as a result of Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself, is none other than the figurehead of Comey’s firing himself, Rosenstein. There can be no doubt that the FBI investigation of Trump, led by members of the Trump administration like Rosenstein and the eventual nominee for FBI director that Trump will hand-pick, will be influenced by the Comey incident. Without the obvious independence Comey so often asserted, whatever conclusions an investigation of Trump draw will lack the perception of credibility.