Former FBI Director James Comey speaks at the Intelligence National Security Alliance Leadership Dinner at the Hilton Mark Center in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., March 29, 2017
Former FBI Director James Comey speaks at the Intelligence National Security Alliance Leadership Dinner at the Hilton Mark Center in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., March 29, 2017 (REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein )
For all the questions swirling around President Trump’s abrupt decision to fire James Comey, one stands out above all:
If the administration rationale—that the FBI director botched the investigation of Hillary Clinton last summer—is accurate, why didn’t the president-elect dump him during the transition?
To say there is media skepticism about this rationale would be a colossal understatement.
In the hours after the bombshell announcement, Fox’s Charles Krauthammer said the explanation was “highly implausible” and “almost inexplicable.” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews branded it the “Tuesday night massacre,” likening it to Richard Nixon’s Saturday night firing of the Watergate special prosecutor, because Trump “fired the guy investigating his team.” CNN’s Jeff Toobin called it a “grotesque abuse of power.”
The journalistic assumption—pushed by Democrats like Chuck Schumer, who demanded a special prosecutor—is that Trump dumped Comey to impede the FBI’s investigation of Trump associates and any improper contacts with Russia.
Let’s take a deep breath and look at what we know.
Trump says he relied on the recommendation of Jeff Sessions (who has recused himself from the Russia probe) and the new deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.
Indeed, Trump brought up the probe in his letter to Comey: “While I appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation,” he agreed with DOJ’s judgment that “you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.”
Rosenstein’s memo said Comey “usurped” the attorney general’s authority last July by holding a news conference once had decided not to bring an indictment against Clinton. That included “derogatory information,” and “we never release it gratuitously.”
The memo also said Comey should not have announced the reopening of the Clinton probe last October because for prosecutors, “silence is not concealment.” And Rosenstein said his view was shared by DOJ officials from Democratic as well as Republican officials.
Comey has little support in Washington, having angered Republicans for not prosecuting Clinton and Democrats for throwing that monkey wrench at the end of the campaign.
But the erupting debate is all about Trump. The president fired the head of the FBI because he wasn’t nice to Hillary? Who will Trump appoint to run the bureau, and can that person be credible in taking over the Russia investigation (which may have been going nowhere in any event). Will it smell like a coverup?
Trump knew this would be an explosive move, and he was willing to take the heat.
But just when it seemed that the administration was settling down to cruising speed, the Comey firing is going to dominate the news for weeks to come.