How Firing FBI Director James Comey Backfired on Trump
When Trump sacked Comey, he poured gasoline on an already burning fire.
In the week since President Donald Trump stunned official Washington by firing FBI Director James Comey, why he did it and what it means continues to dominate the conversation. Reactions have been sharply divided, mostly along partisan lines. Trump’s fans celebrated it as the long overdue comeuppance of the architect of a politically-motivated witch-hunt. The President’s critics seized on it as confirmation of Trump’s authoritarian intentions. Most everyone else was simply baffled.
A Shifting Narrative
Shifting explanations from the White House heightened the controversy as the week wore on. Team Trump’s original story, that the President made the decision after Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein recommended he do so quickly fell apart. Rosenstein, who wrote a memo at the President’s request laying out the case against Comey, reportedly bristled at the White House’s claim that firing the FBI director was his idea. The rational that Trump dismissed Comey for mishandling the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server didn’t hold much water either. By week’s end, it became apparent that the real reason Trump fired Comey was that his anger with the FBI director over the ongoing Russia investigation simply boiled over.
“Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire (James) Comey.” — President Donald Trump to NBC’s Lester Holt.
The chief debunker of the White House’s version of events turned out to be the President himself. In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt Thursday night, the President said that his mind was made up about firing Comey prior to the recommendation from Sessions and Rosenstein. Trump complained that the former FBI director was a “showboat” and told Holt that the Russia investigation, which he felt was baseless, was on his mind when he made the decision. “And in fact when I decided to just do it,” Trump told Holt, “I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.”
The New York Times threw another wrinkle into the official narrative when it reported that at a dinner soon after taking office, Trump asked for assurance that he had Comey’s loyalty. Comey refused to give it but promised his honesty. This, according to Comey’s allies, infuriated the President and was a big part of the reason he fired Comey. The White House denied Trump made such a demand.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Thursday that Team Trump hopes firing James Comey will help bring the FBI’s Russia probe to a swift close. Yet, if Trump removed Comey to put an end to his Russia-related troubles, the plan is already backfiring.
Firing Comey won’t stop FBI agents from investigating. If anything, said one former FBI agent, “this might rally them.” Acting FBI director Andrew McCabe is not likely to be cowed. Any candidate the Senate will agree to confirm as Comey’s successor is not either. There is little chance that the Senate will confirm a new FBI Director unless Senators are convinced that they will not bury the Russia investigation.
Republicans on Capitol Hill, troubled by the timing of Comey’s dismissal and the dubious explanations offered by the White House have not rushed to Trump’s aid. And public opinion has come down squarely against Trump’s move. By abruptly firing his FBI director in the middle of an investigation into his campaign, Trump poured gasoline on an already burning fire.
‘Enough is Enough’
“There was a sense in the White House, I believe, that enough was enough when it came to this guy.” — Trump confidant Roger Stone.
Still, it seems unlikely that sacking Comey is part of any kind of planned strategy to derail the Russia investigation. Rather, it seems more likely that President Trump simply got fed up. As Axios’ Mike Allen put it, “The answers to why Trump canned Comey are becoming clear: The president was filled with grievance about the FBI probe and acted on impulse without clearly thinking through the fallout.”
The Case Against Comey
There is a case to be made that Comey bungled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. Plenty of reasonable people — including a good many FBI agents — don’t see much distinction between “gross negligence” (the legal standard for prosecuting Clinton) and extreme carelessness (Comey’s characterization of Clinton’s actions). It is a fair criticism of Comey that he went too far in publicly announcing his recommendation not to prosecute. It wasn’t his call to make. His October letter announcing that the FBI was revisiting its investigation into the affair was not especially prudent either.
Comey’s actions in 2016 were controversial, but by most accounts he was acting in good faith. Comey was reluctant to make the FBI the meat in anyone’s political sandwich but has a tin ear for politics and ended up doing exactly that. Whether that’s a firing offense doesn’t really matter. While the norm is that there’s a really high bar for firing FBI directors, they serve at the pleasure of the President. Trump can technically fire Comey for any reason or no reason at all. That doesn’t mean it was a good idea.
Firing Comey May Always Haunt Trump
As yet no convincing evidence has emerged, publicly at least, that Trump did anything wrong. Still, there’s no real way for Trump to stop the investigation. Even if Trump turns out to be squeaky clean, there’s good reason to believe that people around him might not be. Regardless, it is important to understand Russia’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 election in order to prevent its doing so in the future. For that reason, the investigation will continue to have bipartisan support. Firing Comey certainly won’t allow Trump to put suspicions about Russia behind him. Instead it will just make matters worse.
If it turns out Trump was not complicit in Russia’s interference, there’s no reason to believe that Comey would not have found as much. Comey’s conclusion would have been seen as credible. If Trump is innocent, and he very well may be, his decision to fire Comey had made clearing his name that much harder. Now, any outcome favorable to the President will be tainted by suspicion that his new FBI director whitewashed the investigation. In the end, Trump has ensured that Russia will probably always haunt him.The best thing he can do now is nominate the most credible FBI director candidate he can find and hope for the best.