Terry H. Schwadron
Well, well. Don’t like hearing televised comments that people in your orbit are under some kind of secret FBI investigation about collusion with Russians? Don’t like hearing that your political opponent, Hillary Clinton, is back out there on TV that she lost only because of a blown FBI press conference? Don’t like seeing the FBI director back in front a congressional hearing, stumbling and mumbling a bit about how nauseated going public about her emails before the election made him?
President Donald Trump donned his eponymous TV persona and told James B. Comey Jr.: You’re Fired.
The message came clothed in Justice Department review language that probably took some time to assemble, but the swiftness, chilly tone and weird timing made clear that this was a sharpened lance gutting Comey. The particulars cited as reasoning all were in place 100 days ago.
But those were the days in which Triumpant Trump was celebrating the results of Comey’s entry into the political calendar. Now, Mr. Trump said he was taking the action on the recommendation of the Justice Department, but that seemed pretty thin camouflage.
That almost no one in public life came to Comey’s defense yesterday and that there was surprise only at the specific timing showed just how politically isolated the FBI director had become. But what reaction there was aimed at Mr. Trump for upsetting the apple cart.
While people on all sides of the political world may variously find reason for the dismissal, there are some takeaways for the rest of us. At least these ideas may help us to understand what just happened:
· The Russia investigation. The biggest push for firing may well have been reflected in what was only mentioned incidentally by President Trump: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation. . . , ” the president told Comey in the letter, it was time to go. You’ll have a hard time persuading me that this isn’t really about throwing a monkey wrench into the Russia investigations. COmey also cast serious doubt on the truth of Mr. Trump’s claimed about being “wiretapped” at Trump Tower during the campaign. In some strange way, Mr. Trump may have worsened his own case by hastening the way for a special independent investigation.
· Hillary’s emails. The explanations prepared by newly installed Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein all focused on the handling of Hillary’s email and the decisions Comey had made to discuss them. Rosenstein said Comey was wrong in holding a press conference to discuss a dismissed investigation, wrong in assuming command of the Department of Justice after Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch had recused herself in the case, wrong in writing to Congress about reopening the case two weeks before the election. Of course, every Democrat in the country would have said the same thing. Hillary herself was on television last week still blaming Comey for her loss to Donald Trump. And every Republican would blame Comey for not locking up Hillary over perceived lawbreaking. Nevertheless, it stretches the imagination to believe that Mr. Trump thought Comey was too heavy-handed in the handling of his opponent’s email issue. Comey, of course, never mentioned during the campaign that the FBI was looking into Russian contacts with Team Trump — or now, ethical issues involving the rest of the Trump family.
· Stumbling and mumbling. Not mentioned at all was Comey’s appearance even this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which he described his personal discomfort about his actions in the Hillary matter, and, incidentally vastly overstating the case for just how many emails were involved in the late October review. The FBI had to issue a correction. The general sense reflected in the firing letters was that Comey had lost effectiveness in running the FBI.
The “optics,” as the pundits like to say, could hardly be worse. Firing Comey in this manner makes it look as if the President is trying to undercut the FBI in his examination of possible
Russian collusion charges. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions has had to recuse himself from any investigation of the President and his team; the deputy attorney general is brand new. There are career FBI agents running things, but who can say with confidence what the impact of this dismissal will be on their independence?
It’s never been clear that Comey had the confidence of Donald Trump. It was pretty clear that had Hillary Clinton won, Comey would be flipping through the job ads.
Getting a new FBI director named and confirmed in the current overcharged political environment will be difficult, and could delay those probes. The reaction among Democrats and a fair number of Republicans may make that tactic backfire.
Who knew that the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted would include the director himself. Just don’t ask why.