The announcement Tuesday afternoon that President Trump had fired Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey raises many questions, not only about the future of the federal agency in charge of both criminal and counterintelligence investigations but about the future of one specific investigation focused on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The announcement came just a few weeks after Comey revealed in testimony before Congress that the FBI is engaged in an active investigation into whether Trump associates colluded with Russian intelligence agencies to damage the candidacy of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton by leaking hacked emails from her campaign and from the Democratic National Committee.
It also arrived just hours after news organizations first learned that federal prosecutors had begun issuing subpoenas in connection with the Comey investigation requiring associates of former Trump administration National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to testify as part of that investigation. Flynn, a retired US Army Lieutenant General, was fired by the White House in February, after it was revealed that he had lied to senior administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his contacts with Russian officials.
The decision to terminate Comey’s tenure as FBI director invited comparisons to the Nixon-era “Saturday Night Massacre” when then-president Richard Nixon sought someone who would agree to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor in charge of investigating the Watergate scandal. He had to first accept the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and then Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus before finding Solicitor General Robert Bork who was willing to do the job.
On Tuesday, though, Trump had the support of the Attorney General and his deputy when he publicly revealed Comey’s termination. Among the questions Tuesday’s firing raises:
What does this mean for the Russia investigation?
Comey, until Tuesday afternoon, ran the federal agency investigating charges that Russian intelligence agencies interfered in the 2016 presidential election in a way meant to benefit Trump, as well as allegations that members of Trump’s campaign colluded with the Kremlin in that effort.
Months ago, critics of the administration began calling for the appointment of a special counsel to take over the investigation, arguing that it was improper for someone who serves at the pleasure of the president to preside over an investigation that might implicate the president or his close associates in criminal wrongdoing.
Those arguments get a whole lot stronger when the FBI director who gave the green light to that investigation gets fired by the president. Comey will be replaced with someone appointed by Trump, inevitably casting doubt on the agency’s ability to conduct an unbiased investigation of the allegations, which the president has regularly raged at as a “total hoax” on his social media accounts.
This evening, Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, called for Trump to appoint a special counsel to take over the investigation. Expect strengthening calls to support the appointment of a respected figure, with independence from the White House, to lead an investigation without ties to the Justice Department or the FBI.
Does Trump’s rationale for firing Comey hold up to scrutiny?
The announcement that Comey had been given the sack was accompanied by the release of a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein laying out the case for his firing, a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions concurring with Rosenstein’s finding, and a letter from Trump to Comey lowering the boom.
Curiously, one of the key criticisms in Rosenstein’s memo was Comey’s decision to inform Congress less than two weeks before the election that the FBI had reopened an investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state.
Rosenstein’s memo suggests the decision was improper. At the time, though, Trump praised Comey’s move, and after he took office, he publicly embraced him, declaring the FBI director had “become more famous than me.”
Another of Rosenstein’s criticisms is that in his July 2016 press conference announcing that the FBI wouldn’t recommend criminal charges be filed against Clinton as a result of the email scandal, he nevertheless went out of his way to criticize her and to publicly reveal derogatory information about her conduct.
Trump took that information and ran with it in the final weeks of the campaign, using it to impugn Clinton’s character on a daily basis, so firing Comey for revealing it seems more than a little hypocritical.
Alternatively, didn’t Comey need to get fired anyway?
There is a strong argument, with supporters on both sides of the partisan divide, that Comey needed to be fired.
Unlike any FBI director in the recent history of the agency, he overtly inserted himself into the political process of electing the US president and did so despite considerable precedent against revealing information about criminal investigations involving candidates for public office immediately prior to an election.
To be sure, Comey had arguments to defend all of his decisions, but whether you accept them or not, it is legitimate to question the wisdom of allowing someone who had become an extremely divisive figure in US politics to continue to head an agency whose claim to political impartiality is essential to its authority.
Who will replace Comey?
Somebody will take the job. Eventually. The question is who, and more importantly, how many people will decline it before the Trump administration finds a willing candidate?
This is no small issue. The FBI is an essential element of the national security system, as well as the main federal agency in charge of criminal investigations. It needs a strong and respected director. But in order to enjoy that strength and respect, the FBI director needs to have a credible claim to independence.
Whoever gets appointed to the job after Comey will face accusations that he or she has been placed in charge of the agency by a president more interested in protecting his own interests than in having a strong and independent FBI.
Again, someone will take the job. The question is whether it will be a person with credentials so unimpeachable that the circumstances of his or her appointment won’t matter, or someone doomed to be characterized as a stooge of a president trying to protect himself from a potentially damaging investigation.