On the Firing of FBI Director James Comey

The decision to fire Comey happened so quickly that virtually no one had any warning. Various media outlets reported that multiple senior FBI and Department of Justice officials having no knowledge of Trump’s announcement ahead of the White House’s release. In fact, one CNN reporter tweeted about FBI sources texting him on whether the Comey news was true. Congress didn’t know either. Senator Dianne Feinstein knew about Comey’s firing only 20 minutes before White House announced it. Senator John Cornyn claimed he learned about it on his iPhone during a meeting. Comey found out while trying to recruit FBI agents in Los Angeles from a TV in the background. Comey laughed in response thinking it was a prank. Nevertheless, whether you liked him or hated him, his firing has profoundly troubling implications for the United States government. Like it or not, Comey was one of the few people in the Justice Department truly independent of Trump and willing to hold him accountable for his actions. And his ousting raised serious questions on Justice Department independence and possibly the integrity of American democracy as we know it.

As a liberal Democrat, I am no fan of FBI Director James Comey. I am still mad at him for his mishandling over Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, especially when he released a statement about discovering more of them in late October. Back in July, he claimed that while her use of a private e-mail server as Secretary of State was “extremely careless” in regard to classified information, he didn’t recommend bringing any charges against her. Then in late October, he wrote a new letter to Congress saying he discovered new Clinton e-mails that could be relevant which turned out to contain no significant new information. Nonetheless, the damage was done and Comey’s rogue conduct in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election may have cost Clinton the White House. But it also gave the impression that the FBI was intervening in an election and politicizing the US legal system. Comey’s behavior certainly violated longstanding FBI norms against trying targets of an investigation in the media. It didn’t help that in March 2017, Comey announced that the FBI had been investigating into Russian interference and links to the Trump campaign and whether there had been any coordination since July 2016. So if the FBI was looking into Trump’s connections with the Russians last summer, why didn’t Comey mention it earlier? And why did he decide to say anything about investigating Hillary’s e-mails instead? So, on one hand, I can totally see why Comey’s firing was deserved.

However, Comey’s dismissal is deeply disturbing since Donald Trump fired him and why. According to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, it was over mishandling Hillary Cinton’s e-mail investigation last year. Sure Comey’s surprise public announcement of recommending no charges brought against Clinton “was wrong” because “it is not the function of the [FBI] director to make such an announcement.” The FBI should investigate while the Justice Department should decide whether to bring charges. But as Rosentein states, Comey, “announced his own conclusions about the nation’s most sensitive criminal investigation, without the authorization of duly appointed Justice Department leaders.” Yes, Comey “laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial,” which Rosenstein writes, “is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.” And yes, Comey shouldn’t have told Congress about the FBI’s discovery of new Clinton e-mails while his defense whether to “speak” or “conceal” the investigation does him no favors. As Rosenstein argued, “When federal agents and prosecutors quietly open a criminal investigation, we are not concealing anything; we are simply following the longstanding policy that we refrain from publicizing non-public information.” Now I can’t disagree with Rosenstein’s points. Yet, it’s very clear the Trump administration is lying their asses off. Because while Comey certainly did mishandle Hillary’s e-mail investigation, Democrats have made strikingly similar criticisms about his behavior for months. They’ve even argued that Comey’s decision to send the letter in October might’ve put Trump in office.

In addition, what Rosenstein wrote in the Justice Department letters completely contradicts everything Trump and his boss Attorney General Jeff Sessions have said about Comey and Hillary Clinton since the campaign. Trump repeatedly complained that Comey was too soft on Clinton and responded to his late October letter to Congress saying, “It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made.” And he has long maintained that the FBI director was right to release it. If he has any complaints about Comey’s behavior, it’s that he didn’t go far enough. Then Senator Jeff Sessions that Comey had “an absolute duty, in my opinion, 11 days or not, to come forward with the new information that he has.” And he defended the FBI director’s July statements on Clinton stating that Obama’s Justice Department had put him in a position so he “had” to speak for himself. Neither of these men cared whether Comey violated longstanding FBI norms against trying investigation targets to the media. And it’s obvious there’s no reason to believe either would change their minds. Because both these men benefitted significantly from what Comey did. Besides, during his first week in office, Trump had asked Comey to stay on his post and he planned to serve out the full remainder of his term. By then, everything about his actions in the Clinton investigation were well-known. What changed between now and then that would’ve led Trump or Sessions view Comey’s handling of the situation so differently, is impossible to fathom. Nor would it make any sense. Besides, a New York Times report that Sessions had been “had been working to come up with reasons” to fire Comey since at least last week.

Donald Trump is a notorious liar and has a long history of corruption. For years, he called New York tabloids using a fake name. He claimed that climate change was a Chinese hoax before alleging he never said that during a debate. He’s constantly lied about his wealth that we’re not even sure how much he makes. He’s promised to release his tax returns but still hasn’t. He denied mocking a reporter with a disability when there’s a video showing him doing just that. He said Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination. He denied telling America to “check out [the] sex tape” of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. He promised to get behind a healthcare bill that covered everyone, lowered deductibles, and avoided Medicaid cuts. But he endorsed the American Healthcare Act which does the opposite on all 3 counts.  It’s widely reported that Trump lies all the time that we just assume it whenever he opens his mouth or is on his Twitter feed.

Another reason is that what’s changed between January is that in March, Comey revealed the FBI is investigating whether Trump’s campaign or associates colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. Two days after his testimony, CNN reported that “the FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” And that the information came from “human intelligence, travel, business and phone records, and accounts of in-person meetings.” Though CNN’s reporters cautioned the info “was not conclusive,” the FBI was pointing in a direction it could implicate Trump officials. Had the bureau actually found hard proof that the Trump campaign had coordinated with the Russians, it would’ve been the kind of scandal that topples a presidency. By early April, the FBI investigation into Russia had to form a special unit for it in Washington. Meanwhile, the House investigation had stalled thanks to Rep. Devin Nunes’s weird insistence on backing up Trump’s wild claims about Obama spying on him in Trump Tower. And the fact Nunes was chairing the investigative committee despite that he served on Trump’s campaign and transition team. At the same time, the Senate proceeded slowly due to being given only limited funding and staff. But it was to the point where senators publicly complained about the pace. So that left the FBI conducting the most serious investigation to Trump’s Russia ties by far. And it was one Congress or journalists couldn’t match. The bureau had money, trained investigators, and access to powerful surveillance tools. But most importantly, it had a director entirely behind the investigation. This is easily illustrated in a report from the New York Times. According to them, just days before Comey’s firing, the FBI director asked the Justice department “for a significant increase in resources for the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election, according to three officials with knowledge of his request.”

Since at least last spring, there have been ongoing allegations of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. Vladimir Putin is no fan of western democracy and has repeatedly tried to show his people how it’s no better than any other government system. Trump has praised Putin on multiple occasions along with other authoritarian leaders. And there’s mounting evidence multiple members of Trump’s campaign and administration were in direct contact with Russian intelligence in the run up to the election. And several have lied about it. Trump’s association with Russia has been the center of a scandal he can never shake off. And his sudden decision to oust Comey ensures that the scandal will haunt the rest of Trump’s presidency and hopefully end it prematurely.

Recently a report from CNN states that the FBI’s Russia investigation is just heating up. Grand jury subpoenas were issued to associates of fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. They wrote, “Investigators have been looking into possible wrongdoing in how Flynn handled disclosures about payments from clients tied to foreign governments including Russia and Turkey.” We should also account that President Barack Obama and former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates had warned Trump about Flynn well in advance. We all know that Flynn was fired for lying about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Now Flynn has sought immunity from prosecution (which he didn’t get) as it became clear he accepted money from the Russian and Turkish governments without properly disclosing it. Trump’s son-in-law and Senior White House aide Jared Kushner also held undisclosed meetings with Kislyak during the transition period and only made them public a few months later. Even more disturbing, then Attorney General designate Jeff Sessions lying under oath during his confirmation hearings. He told lawmakers he had no interactions with the Russian government. Only it turned out he had held conversations with Kisylak so he promised to recuse himself from the FBI investigation. Well, sort of. Because Sessions recommended that Trump fire Comey.

For a president to fire the FBI director looking into him and his associates, it’s natural to question about a cover-up. Nevertheless, Trump has repeatedly denounced the Russia story as “fake news.” He was reportedly very angry when Sessions recused himself from any investigations into the 2016 election in early March. Less than 24 hours before firing Comey, he apparently called the investigation of or hearings on the subject a “taxpayer funded charade,” and asked when it would “end.” In the letter in which he fired Comey, Trump stated that: “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.” It’s obvious he intended to shield himself from cover-up allegations.

A report from Politico states that Trump “had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia.” According to an adviser, Trump, “repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe.” Several other people familiar with the events said that Trump “had talked about the firing for more than a week, and the [Justice Department] letters were written to give him a rationale for firing Comey.” Now this makes a lot more sense than what the administration said. Jake Tapper from CNN quoted a “source close to Comey” claiming the FBI director was fired for refusing to provide Trump “with any assurance of personal loyalty,” and because the bureau’s Russia investigation wasn’t going away but “accelerating.” And two New York Times reporters stated that on the day before the firing Trump, “told people around him that he wanted Mr. Comey gone, repeatedly questioning Mr. Comey’s fitness for the job and telling aides there was ‘something wrong’ with him.”

Trump has a long history of covering stuff up. It’s easy to presume the real reason behind Comey’s firing had something to do with the ongoing Russia investigation. However, we don’t really know that. Nevertheless, over the years, despite never facing a serious criminal investigation, he’s repeatedly bumped against one. Mostly because Trump has been able to use his money, power, and celebrity to get away with stuff that would’ve landed someone else in jail. So it’s no surprise he’d use his presidential powers to obstruct and subvert justice. All his life, Trump has gone to great lengths to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. He has viciously retaliated when anyone challenges him on them. And he has often rationalized them, often by blaming the victim. He seems to have been mixed up with the Mafia. His casinos have paid civil fines for evading money laundering rules. He’s been involved in empty box tax scams. Not to mention, he may have committed criminal tax evasion with his Trump Foundation. It’s possible Comey’s firing could’ve had something to do with Russia. But the FBI could’ve easily found some totally unrelated criminal misconduct. Or that Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns has nothing to do with Russian bribes or blackmail. What we do know is that Trump appears covering something up. We’re not exactly sure what it is. But it sure seems like something big and important. Since all the evidence seems to paint a very clear picture of a president deciding to fire an FBI director to obstruct an ongoing investigation before stitching together a shaky justification for doing so. In short, Trump fired Comey out of self-preservation which is consistent with everything else he’s done all his life.

Nevertheless, Comey’s firing was among 3 instances where Trump fired major Justice Department officials who served in the Obama administration. In his first 4 months in office, President Pussygrabber has fired the acting attorney general, asked 46 US attorneys to resign, and dismissed the director of the FBI. Some of these moves don’t seem unusual, at least in isolation. But take them together and it raises the question whether Trump has been trying to impede investigations into himself or his associates through muscling out independent actors in the Justice Department. Shortly after he was sworn in Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to defend his travel ban in court. Though this move was unusual, it was aimed at someone who’d eventually leave her post once Jeff Sessions was confirmed. Yet, Trump would call her “an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration” who “betrayed the Department of Justice.” Not to mention, Yates had given Trump’s White House counsel Doug McGahn a disturbing briefing warning that then-National Security adviser Michael Flynn was, “potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail.”

In March, Trump asked for resignations from 46 US attorneys held over from the Obama years. In case you don’t know, these people are powerful DOJ law enforcement officials in their states and districts with a tradition of acting mostly independently. Yet, there’s a precedent for a new president to replace all his predecessor’s appointees though Trump has yet to nominate a single person for a US attorney post. But the firing of Preet Bharara stands out because Trump had asked him to stay on several months earlier and he refused to step down. ProPublica later revealed that Bharara had been investigating Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s stock trades. Even more interesting, the New York Times reported that the day before he asked the US attorneys to resign, Trump’s office placed an unusual call to Bharara’s office for a call back. According to the report, Bharara reviewed Justice Department protocol and decided it wouldn’t be appropriate to return Trump’s call. Bharara suspects something weird going on, sending cryptic sounding tweets. One of these referred to the “Moreland Commission” which New York Governor Andrew Cuomo created to investigate state politics and hastily shut down as part of a political deal. Now Bharara was unanimously confirmed by the US Senate as US attorney was one of “the nation’s most aggressive and outspoken prosecutors of public corruption and Wall Street crime.” His tenure as the US attorney for the Southern District of New York prosecuted nearly 100 Wall Street executives for insider trading and other offenses. Hell, he was even speculated as a potential candidate for attorney general. Nevertheless, Bharara has sworn that serving as US attorney was “the greatest honor of my professional life” and that “one hallmark of justice is absolute independence, and that was my touchstone every day that I served.” However, the fact he operated on Trump’s home turf and possibly angered many of his donors probably had something to do with his firing.

But Trump’s firing of Comey is different since it’s the move with the least precedent and justification. The FBI director is a nonpartisan appointee who serves a 10 year term. Recent new presidents usually keep their predecessors’ FBI directors on as Trump said he’d keep Comey on, too. The only recent firing of an FBI director was in 1993 over alleged financial misdeeds. Democrats and Republicans alike may have dealt intense criticism to him over his handling on the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation. But by January, he seemed to have all that behind him as Trump had told him he’d keep his post. Nevertheless, Comey’s ouster calls the independence of the US’s top law enforcement institutions into serious question, which is deeply troubling. Even Democrats deeply critical of Comey’s handling of Clinton’s e-mails have reacted in horror since he was clearly independent of Trump. And like Bharara and Yates, was highly regarded for his work. With his and earlier two firings, Trump has sent an unmistakable message to the Justice Department and other law enforcement officials refusing to toe the White House line may not keep their jobs for long.

Democrats have good reason to compare the Comey firing to the biggest political scandal: Watergate. If you’re American, Watergate has a singular resonance that nearly every scandal eventually has a “-gate” added to its name. And they’re quick to call to create the position that ultimately led to Richard Nixon’s downfall: a special prosecutor with broad investigative powers and the freedom to follow evidence without needing congressional approval. Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey remarked that the Comey firing was “disturbingly reminiscent of the Saturday Night Massacre during the Watergate scandal and the national turmoil it caused.” What Markey describes is when Nixon tried to kneecap a dangerous investigation into his own wrongdoing. In October 1973, special prosecutor Archibald Cox issued a subpoena ordering Nixon to turn over copies of taped conversations in the Oval Office. Nixon refused before ordering Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson to fire him. Richardson refused and resigned in protest. Nixon then gave the same order to Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus who refused and also quit in protest. So Nixon turned to then-Solicitor General Robert Bork who agreed to do what the other two officials would not. After Cox was out, Nixon, according to the Washington Post, “also abolished the office of the special prosecutor and turned over to the Justice Department the entire responsibility for further investigation and prosecution of suspects and defendants in Watergate and related cases.”

And that’s where it becomes all the more relevant. It’s not just that Trump fired the guy charged with leading the explosive investigation into whether his campaign colluded with the Russians as Moscow searched for ways to ensure Hillary Clinton’s defeat. It’s that Trump is putting that investigation back into the hands of a Justice Department led by Jeff Sessions. Sessions’s own ties to Russia and his own lies about them make him spectacularly unfit for any role in determining the Trump-Russia investigation’s future course or who’d be leading it. And we all know that Trump won’t let the executive branch investigate his own and his associates’ actions. By ousting Comey and putting FBI and Justice Department independence into question, Trump has given employees potential motivations to leak further in an administration already plagued by damaging anonymous leaks from intelligence agencies and law enforcement already. And those leaks could have serious consequences. After all, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s famous source Deep Throat turned out to be a high-ranking FBI agent.

Yet, when Nixon tried to curb the Watergate investigation through firing Justice Department officials, it led to bipartisan backlash. A new special prosecutor was appointed who seriously pursued the matter, a congressional investigation moved forward, and it all ended with Nixon’s resignation in order to what seemed like certain impeachment. But back then there were principled Republicans like Ruckelhaus, Richardson, John Dean, and Senator Howard Bakker who put country over party and acted with courage and honor. The political system has considerably changed since 40 years ago, especially in the Republican Party. Whether serious investigations into Trump will continue depends on a large part on how congressional Republicans act since they control the House and Senate. But now we have Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan who Trump is unfit for office but won’t act. So far for the most part, they’ve been willing and eager to try to defend Trump and shield him from potentially damaging investigations. Though several Republican senators did criticize him the night of the firing and the party can come under increased pressure to create a special bipartisan committee investigating either Comey’s ouster or the Russia scandal.

Still, despite everyone demanding for a special prosecutor and that the next FBI director be independent and impartial, it would be naïve to think that the Republican Party cared about the integrity of American government institutions to force Trump into complying with some basic ethics guidelines and undertake meaningful financial disclosures. But we should remember that this is the same party that blocked Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court during the Obama administration because they didn’t want the highest court in the land to flip Democrat after Antonin Scalia’s sudden demise. In the Trump administration, we have Ivanka Trump hawking a book from inside the West Wing and nobody having any clue what kind of sweetheart deals corporations or foreign governments with business before the US government are striking with the Trump Organization. And in exchange for turning a blind eye towards Trump’s corruption, Republicans get a slate of conservative judges, a solid roster of business-friendly regulators, and if they’re lucky, a giant tax cut for the rich and millions cut off from Medicaid benefits and Obamacare exchanges. Nevertheless, the price is obvious. The deeper you get in bed with Trump, the more tightly your fate is intertwined with his. And keep in mind, that last week, House Republicans had a big party at the White House for passing a profoundly malicious healthcare bill nobody wanted. But whether Republicans will continue sucking up to Trump or put nation over party remains to be seen. Nevertheless, a reporter from Marketwatch has said that McConnell and Ryan won’t do their jobs out of fear that exercising their duty could rile up Trump’s supporters, which may cost them their power. And because of their fear of the mob, they enable Trump’s narcissism, incompetence, corruption, and contempt for the Constitution and the American people.

It’s clear Comey’s firing doesn’t seem to faze Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who’s said he doesn’t see any need for a special prosecutor or an independent commission to review Russia’s influence on the 2016 election. He also implied that calls for another investigation were “partisan” arguing that Democrats should be in favor of Trump’s decision. Sure Dems have bemoaned how Comey handled Hillary Clinton’s e-mail probe. But not to the degree that they wanted him fired, least of all by Trump. And it’s especially the case since he was the man investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election as well as seemed to be among the few who could’ve truly held Trump accountable. Besides, several congressional Republicans are now beginning to question the timing and rationale behind Comey’s firing, too. Senator John McCain said in a statement, “I have long called for a special congressional committee to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The president’s decision to remove the FBI director only confirms the need and the urgency of such a committee.” Senator Richard Burr tweeted, “I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order.” And that, “His dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee.” Not to mention, the Senate’s Trump/Russia investigation has started getting serious as the committee announced it’s issued a subpoena to former National Security adviser Flynn and demanded he turn over related documents. Committee Chair Burr and ranking member Senator Mark Warner have also declared they’d subpoena anyone else asked to produce documents but didn’t. And they’ve asked the now ousted Comey to testify. But as far as Republicans are concerned there is still a long way to go.

Yet, what’s certain is that replacing Comey with a well-qualified FBI director or continuing with existing congressional inquiries will not remedy the situation ousting him has put us in. We all know that Trump is going to replace Comey with a swamp crony and that congressional Republicans squabble amongst themselves over this for the time being. What’s needed is a separate investigation featuring sworn testimony from key players, subpoenas, and documents into why Comey was fired. But even so, it’s obviously clear Trump fired him in order to obstruct an ongoing investigation. America can’t afford to have Republican leaders protecting and defending Trump again and again. Even they know he’s a thoroughly unfit, corrupt, dangerous, and unrespectable man. Even if their party does benefit from his horrible leadership, their stance to stick by him as long as they get what they want is profoundly troubling as well as sets a terrible example for the country. And it’s especially the case if what they want is a maliciously cruel healthcare plan nobody else wants that would cut healthcare access from millions of Americans and will result in many deaths if it becomes law. For the sake of the nation, congressional Republicans need to put their country and constituents first. Or else, his erratic ways will eventually drag them down with them. Though breaking with Trump might risk riling up his supporters, they should remember he is incredibly unpopular with record low approval ratings. So it’s best they reconsider before it’s too late, even if it does cost them their careers in the long-term. If they don’t, then the American people will certainly need different lawmakers to represent them. To let Trump get away with firing the guy investigating his and his associates Russia ties is morally indefensible and an unforgivable shame.

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