President Trump has fired FBI director James Comey, who had made himself eminently fireable.
Last July, Comey took it upon himself to become not only the nation’s top policeman, but its top prosecutor, explaining in a long press conference that Hillary Clinton had clearly broken the law by hosting classified information on her private e-mail server, but that there was not “clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws.” As we observed at the time, the relevant statute does not require “intent,” only “gross negligence” — which adequately described the behavior Comey termed “reckless” and “extremely careless” — and, in any event, deciding whether to prosecute was not up to him, but to then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch. The entire event was, as longtime Justice Department hands noted, unprecedented.
Democrats, who in the wake of Tuesday evening’s news are breathless with Watergate comparisons, seem suddenly to have recalled their past enthusiasm for Comey’s “independence” and “integrity.”
Most Democrats have spent the last several months incensed at Comey, after he announced just days before November’s presidential election that the FBI was reopening its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, based on evidence found on the computer of Anthony Weiner, husband of Clinton’s right-hand woman Huma Abedin. (Yesterday, the Justice Department confirmed that Abedin did in fact send classified information to Weiner’s unsecured e-mail account.) Democrats, among them then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, suggested that Comey’s letter may have violated the Hatch Act, which restricts political activity by certain government officials. That anger intensified when, a few days later, Comey said, in effect, “Never mind,” and re-closed the reopened investigation, reaffirming the FBI’s previous conclusion: She broke the law, but so what?
On Tuesday evening, accounting for Comey’s termination, this sequence of events was laid out in a long memo by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, whose tenure at the Department of Justice began just two weeks ago. Rosenstein’s presentation of the facts is fair and scrupulous. In addition to explaining how Comey repeatedly defied longstanding Justice Department precedent throughout the Clinton e-mail investigation, he cites critical comments from attorneys and deputy attorneys general from the last several administrations, both Republican and Democratic. Rosenstein rightly observes: “Almost everyone agrees that the Director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.” Indeed, the only person who did not agree is James Comey, who has seemed incapable of admitting obvious errors, and has in effect asserted that his investigative “independence” makes him accountable to no one.
Democrats, having spent the last several months accusing Comey of intervening to throw the presidential election to Donald Trump, are now suggesting that he is an indispensable man. Senator Brian Schatz declared on Twitter: “We are in a full-fledged constitutional crisis.”
Deep breaths, Senator.
It is well documented that the Russian government attempted to interfere in November’s election, but there remains no concrete evidence that anyone in the Trump campaign was in on it — let alone that Trump himself “colluded” his way into the Oval Office. Furthermore, speculations to the contrary are in no small part based on a misunderstanding of what Comey said in his March testimony before the House Intelligence Committee: There is an ongoing counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s election interference; there is no ongoing criminal investigation by the FBI of President Trump or his campaign.
Of course, Donald Trump has often been less than forthright in his public statements, and the reasons that President Trump should have fired Comey — for example, those outlined by Rosenstein — appear not to be the reasons he did. Press reports suggests that Trump was angry about the Russian probe, Comey’s ubiquity in the media, and the FBI director’s refusal to make a statement exonerating him. If true, none of this speaks well of Trump. Politically, the firing obviously isn’t going to tamp down the Russian controversy, but intensify it. As will the White House’s typically shambolic handling of the dismissal.
Several Republican senators, including Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina, have expressed concern about the sudden termination. The public deserves a forthright answer about the how’s and why’s of the decision, and if the White House does not provide it, Congress must seek it.
We will know more about the White House’s mindset based on its choice for Comey’s successor. Ideally, the administration will find a replacement well-respected on both sides of the aisle who promises to be appropriately independent of the position’s inevitable political pressures. That ought to be the case if, as President Trump says in his letter to Comey, the purpose of finding new leadership is to “restore public trust and confidence” in the FBI. Anything less will be understood as partisan gamesmanship or a cover-up — even if there is, in fact, nothing to cover up.
Needless to say, over the past year James Comey found himself in a difficult situation, squeezed between two major-party candidates widely suspected of grave criminal wrongdoing. But his response was, time and again, to make himself policeman, prosecutor, and judge, breaking with decades-old protocols instituted for precisely those sorts of high-pressure situations, and making the nation’s chief law-enforcement office look like a political player. The Bureau’s reputation is at a low ebb because of Comey’s decisions. One way or the other, he needed to go.