In a young administration that has never lacked for news or controversy, President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday has turned into the news story of the year, with twists and turns so bizarre that a Hollywood script writer might reject some as being “not believable.”
Without knowing what future years will bring, there is little doubt that future generations of school kids will learn the names of just two directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover and James Comey.
Quick, how many directors in the history of the FBI can you name? I’ll be honest, the only extra name I could come up with was Comey’s predecessor, Robert Mueller. There haven’t been many. Since the longtime Director Hoover died in 1972, Comey was just the sixth full-time Director (with seven other men holding the title of “Acting Director,” including Andrew McCabe, who holds that title now).
When the history of the 2016 presidential contest is written (as it is being written now), the name that will tower above all others not named Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will be that of James Comey. The Comey saga goes back nearly a year. 12 months ago the Bureau’s investigation into Hillary’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State was in its final stages.
For those who may have missed it, a timeline of events regarding Comey’s role in the presidential election and in the first 100+ days of the Trump Administration. If you’re familiar with all of the events leading up to Comey’s firing on Tuesday, feel free to scroll down to “5 Key Questions.”
The timeline of events in 2016 relating to the Hillary Clinton email server investigation:
- June 27, 2016: a chance coincidence (maybe) put former President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch on the same tarmac in Phoenix. Clinton decided to say “hello” to the AG and boarded her plane, creating a firestorm that Clinton was trying to influence Lynch’s decision about whether to file charges against his wife.
- July 1: four days later, realizing the poor optics of her meeting with the former president, Lynch publicly announced that she would accept whatever recommendations would be made by the FBI Director (Comey) in the private server case. Although not officially, essentially Lynch had recused herself from the case.
- July 5th: just three days after the Bureau’s interview with Hillary, Comey had a press conference in which he announced that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring charges against Mrs. Clinton in the server case. In a bizarre twist, however, Comey also excoriated her for extreme carelessness so in one press conference he angered partisans on both sides of the aisle. Republicans were fuming that no charges would be filed and Democrats were annoyed that Comey had made a public case that she had essentially committed criminal acts that fell just below the threshold that would require an indictment.
- October 28th: a mere 11 days before Election Day, Comey informed Congress that he had re-opened the FBI investigation into the private server case because of newly discovered Clinton emails found on the computer of disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner, the husband of longtime Hillary aide Huma Abedin. Although Comey would clear Mrs. Clinton (again) eight days later, it was a key moment in the final weeks of the campaign. Most Democrats (including Hillary herself) attributed the Comey announcement as the turning point in her loss to Mr. Trump.
And now the timeline of events in 2017 that ended with President Trump’s decision to fire Mr. Comey:
- March 4, 2017: Trump, apparently responding to a report he had seen on Fox News, fires off a couple of Tweets very early in the morning in which he essentially accuses President Obama of having spied on him and others at Trump Tower. Trump’s unfounded claims against his predecessor set off a firestorm of criticism and controversy that have yet to fully abate.
- March 20: at the public (thus televised) House Intelligence Committee hearing, both Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers both refute Trump’s claims about Obama “tapping” his phones. During his testimony on the same day, Comey also confirmed that the Bureau was investigating the Russian government’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election and that the investigation included the question about whether members or associates of the Trump campaign were colluding with the Russians.
- April 27: Rod Rosenstein was confirmed as the Deputy Attorney General. This appointment was significant on two fronts. First, because Attorney General Jeff Sessions had failed to disclose in his Senate confirmation hearing that he had had contact with the Russian ambassador, he decided to recuse himself from any investigation into the Russian election meddling. The second, as we’ll see, is how Trump initially used Rosenstein as cover for his decision to fire Comey.
- May 3: testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Comey said that he was “mildly nauseous” that his October 28th re-opening of the Clinton email investigation might have influenced the outcome of the election but also said he would do the same thing if he had to do it over again. During the same testimony, Comey claimed that Huma Abedin had forwarded hundreds of thousands of emails to her husband Anthony Weiner. This statement was later proven to be incorrect; Abedin had forwarded a very small number of emails and the vast majority wound up on Weiner’s computer through a backup system for Abedin’s phone.
And finally, the timeline of events in the past week relating to President Trump’s decision to pull the trigger and fire Director Comey:
- Tuesday, May 9: Trump officially fires Comey. Unlike his firing style on The Apprentice, Trump did not call Comey into his office to say “You’re fired.” Instead, he wrote a brief letter and had it delivered to FBI headquarters by Keith Schiller, Trump’s longtime Director of Security, now the Director of Oval Office Operations. Comey was in Los Angeles meeting with FBI agents and found out about his firing when he saw the headline on TV. The bombshell news story dominated cable networks all evening and even featured O.J.-style helicopter coverage of Comey’s motorcade heading to LAX. The most significant part of Trump’s letter to Comey is the following line:
“While 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.” (Donald Trump, in letter to James Comey)
- Wednesday: the party line from the White House was that Trump fired Comey based on the recommendation from the newly appointed deputy AG Rosenstein. In a 2 1/2 page memorandum, Rosenstein laid out the case against Comey, highlighting his breach of protocol with his public actions regarding the Clinton email investigation. Meanwhile, in a heavy dose of irony, Trump had three significant guests on Wednesday in the Oval Office and, from an “optics” standpoint, all three reminded the public and the press about the controversies swirling around the President:
- Henry Kissinger, who was Secretary of State under Richard Nixon, the president that Trump is increasingly being compared to.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak also met with Trump in the Oval Office. It was his conversations with Kislyak that he neglected to reveal in his Senate confirmation hearing that caused AG Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from all matters relating the investigation of Russian meddling in the election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. Kislyak was also at the center of the controversy involving fired National Security Director Michael Flynn. Finally, in the “you can’t make this stuff up” category, the only press photographer allowed into the Oval Office meeting between Trump, Lavrov and Kislyak was from the state-owned Russian news agency TASS. So for many hours, the only publishable photos of the meeting came from TASS’s website. As one anonymous Trump administration staffer noted to The Daily Beast, they “let the biggest perpetrator of fake news into the Oval Office.”
- Thursday: Trump does a sit-down interview with NBC Nighly News host Lester Holt. In the interview, Trump rejects the talking points from the previous day, instead flatly acknowledging that the termination of Comey was strictly his decision, that he had made up his mind, and that he was going to fire Comey regardless of the deputy AG’s recommendation. In the interview, Holt asked Trump about his claim that Comey had told him (three times) that he wasn’t under investigation by the FBI, Trump maintained that position, that Comey had said this once at dinner and twice over the phone. Sources close to the fired FBI Director dispute President Trump’s account of their dinner meeting, saying instead that Trump had asked Comey to pledge loyalty to him, which Comey refused to do.
- Friday: in an early morning Tweet, President Trump issued a veiled threat to Comey not to leak to the press.
Five Key Questions Relating to the Firing of James Comey
- What was the real motivation behind President Trump’s decision to fire James Comey?
- What’s the truth about Trump’s claims that Comey reassured him three times that he was not under investigation?
- Who will replace Comey as the new Director of the FBI?
- What will happen next in the ongoing investigations into possible collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign?
- What does the Comey saga mean for the future of the Trump Presidency?
1. What was the real motivation behind President Trump’s decision to fire James Comey?
Obviously there is only one human being alive who knows the real answer to this question but we can attempt to answer it based on all of the available evidence through the President’s public statements. So, first of all, let’s dispense with the laughable notion that Trump fired Comey because of the way that he publicly handled the news about the Clinton private server investigation. The idea that Trump fired Comey because he was “unfair” to Hillary Clinton is as believable as the idea that Donald Trump started dating Melania Knauss (the future Mrs. Trump) because of her personality. That’s not a knock on Melania (from all indications she’s an intelligent, thoughtful woman) but, well, you get the point. Let’s just say that the former supermodel would not have married this particular man, 23 years older than she, if he was an average Don living in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens.
It is absolutely true that the way Comey handled the Clinton investigation was a legitimate reason for his dismissal. It was the key point in Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein’s memorandum. But this was just a poorly thought out cover story. The initial messaging was a point A-to-B-to-C-to-D linkage in which…
- “A” was Rosenstein getting the job,
- “B” was Rosenstein’s belief that Comey should be replaced, based on his breach of standard Bureau protocol regarding his public comments in the Clinton investigation,
- “C” was that Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions shared their views of disapproval to the President, and
- “D”: Trump immediately followed their recommendations and fired the FBI Director.
For the first 40 or so hours (until the NBC News interview excerpts started airing Thursday afternoon), this was the official message. The evidence is in the very first paragraph of Trump’s letter to Comey announcing his removal from office.
The second sentence of the letter says “I have accepted their recommendation and you are hereby terminated and removed from office.” The talking points, that Trump fired Comey based on Rosenstein’s memo, was echoed by Vice-President Mike Pence and Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (Governor Mike Huckabee’s daughter). Sanders went as far as to refer to Comey’s conduct regarding the Clinton investigation as “atrocities,” a rather overcharged word that should be reserved for the likes of murderous dictators around the globe.
But of course, as we know, the President trumped those talking points one day later when he admitted to Lester Holt that he was going to fire Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s recommendation. This is not entirely unreasonable, by the way. It’s perfectly rational for Trump to say that he was planning to fire the Bureau’s Director but waited until he had the unanimous support of his two chief law enforcement appointees to the Justice Department. He didn’t really say that though. He said that he was going to fire Comey regardless of the recommendation.
So this brings us to “why?” The President’s stated reasons, in the Holt interview, included that Comey was a “show boat,” a “grand stander” (humorous coming from Trump) and that the FBI was “in turmoil.” But also, early in the interview, he said this:
“And in fact when I decided to just do it, 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.”
— Donald Trump (with Lester Holt of NBC News on Thursday)
Although he didn’t state outright that the FBI investigation into Russian meddling and possible collusion with the Trump campaign was his reason for firing Comey, he certainly implied it there.
On Friday, Trump told Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro that he had contemplated firing Comey on his first day in office. If he had actually done that, I doubt there would have been much of a commotion about it at all. In fact it might have been viewed as an olive branch to the Democrats, still fuming about the October 28th letter that blunted the momentum that Mrs. Clinton was building after the release Trump’s embarrassing Access Hollywood tape.
But Trump waited until May 9th. Why? My guess is that Trump actually started contemplating letting the FBI Director go after the two men had dinner in January (more on that in #2 below) and that Comey really started digging his own grave on March 20th when he publicly rebuked the President’s Tweet that Trump Tower was “wire tapped” by the Obama administration and did confirm that the Bureau had an ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. Trump has repeatedly called the Russia story a “ruse” and “fake news” so this must have infuriated him. And then, when Comey said (on May 3rd) that he was “mildly nauseous” that he might have altered the outcome of the election, that could not have sat well with a President that is highly sensitive about any criticisms that he didn’t earn his victory all by himself.
So, whatever the reason, why the rush? Why did the firing have to be done so quickly that nobody extended the courtesy of allowing Comey to learn about his firing in person or by phone? I can see two possible reasons: the first is that Trump is an impulsive man and simply wanted to get it done pronto. The other is that Comey was scheduled to testify (again) in front of Congress on Thursday (not about Russia but about foreign threats in general) and Trump wanted to pre-empt that by making Comey irrelevant to any ongoing Bureau activities.
On that level, he succeeded; Comey did not appear on Thursday. But on every other level, the Comey firing has backfired for the President.
2. What’s the truth about Trump’s claims that Comey reassured him three times that he was not under investigation?
This is something that (theoretically) only two people know with any certainty. Comey has not spoken publicly since his dismissal but sources close to him have refuted the President’s claims. In the letter detailing his firing and in the Lester Holt interview, Trump claimed that Comey had told him on three separate occasions that he was not under FBI investigation. So far, we only have Trump’s version of these events although a New York Times story has reported, from sources close to Comey, that the President had asked the FBI Director to pledge loyalty directly to him and that Comey refused to do so, instead promising “honesty.”
Is it possible that Comey directly confirmed to Trump that he was not under investigation? I think it’s entirely possible. From all reporting, it’s the Trump campaign that is under investigation which, incidentally, is not currently a criminal investigation but a counter-intelligence investigation. So Donald Trump may not personally be under investigation, at least not at this point. It’s also possible that Comey never said this and Trump is relying on the public backing his version of events.
There are actually “tapes” of Trump’s conversations with Comey as the President intimated with his early morning Friday Tweet. The dangers of any president recording his conversations would seem to be evident by Richard Nixon’s downfall but many reports have indicated that Trump habitually recorded his conversations in his business life, so it’s certainly possible that there is evidence about precisely what was said between the two men.
Even if it’s true, it was a really bad move for Trump to essentially threaten Comey with those tapes, for multiple reasons. First, the mere mention of the word “tapes” evokes images of Nixon, this after multiple days of Democrats and the media’s labeling of the Comey firing as “Nixonian.” Second, if in fact there are “tapes” (or digital recordings in today’s world) of the conversations, those recordings can be subpoenaed and thus revealed to investigators whether Trump wants to release them or not.
Until Comey comments publicly, we won’t really know his side of the story. But if his story contradicts the story spun by the President, Congress, the media and the public will have to decide who they believe. Comey was invited to testify in front of a closed-door session of the Senate Intelligence Committee and he declined. But multiple reports have indicated that Comey is in fact willing to testify if the hearing is made public.
So here is the question: if the stories of Donald Trump and James Comey contradict each other, who would you believe? The answer to that question should be pretty simple for anyone but the hardest of hard-core Trump supporters.
3. Who will replace Comey as the new Director of the FBI?
Various names have been floated about this. Among those interviewed in the first few days were Acting Director Andrew McCabe and Republican Texas Senator John Cornyn (former AG of Texas). Other well known possibilities mentioned in the media include former NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, former Republican congressman Mike Rogers and South Carolina House Rep Trey Gowdy, also a Republican.
Both Republican Senators from Utah (Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee) have suggested the appointment of Merrick Garland, who was Obama’s unconfirmed choice for the Supreme Court a year ago. Don’t laugh. Josh Holmes, former Chief of Staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said on Fox News Sunday this morning that his former boss thinks that’s “a great idea.” (Of course, Trump will be making the pick, not McConnell).
I really have no idea who Trump will eventually choose but, if he wants to stifle the growing “cover-up” claims that are coming his way, he would be wise to select somebody who could be seen as non-partisan, which would eliminate Cornyn, Gowdy and probably Rogers too. Remember, the FBI is really supposed to be non-partisan. It has to be because the Department of Justice is clearly not.
Remember, it was Barack Obama who appointed Comey to the FBI (in 2013) and the Senate confirmed him 93-to-1 (with Rand Paul being the only dissenter). Comey served as the acting AG in the Justice Department under President Bush and was widely praised for resisting the pressure to rubber stamp the NSA’s surveillance program which he and others at Justice felt were in violation of the law.
If the public is to have any confidence in the fidelity of the new FBI director (to the Constitution and rule of law and not specifically to the President), it’s crucial that the new FBI director have broad bi-partisan support. Whoever Trump chooses, that nominee will be asked (under oath) if the President asked them to pledge a loyalty of oath to him. The answer must be “no” to that question and the answer must be credible.
4. What will happen next in the ongoing investigations into possible collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign?
Of course, the FBI investigation will continue, as will the ongoing investigations in the relevant House and Senate committees. The timing of the dismissal of the FBI Director has sparked renewed pleas from Democrats for the appointment of an independent special prosecutor to look into the Russian meddling and Trump campaign collusion probe. The new Deputy AG (Rosenstein) has the power to do this if he chooses and a New York Times Op-Ed this weekend implored him to do so. Remember this: if that happens, a new prosecutor would be essentially starting from scratch; these independent investigations take a long time to get going.
As for the existing investigations, in the FBI, if anything, Trump’s decision to sack the Bureau’s leader may serve to intensify the determination of the agents who are involved into the investigation. Part of the narrative from the Trump administration was that James Comey had lost the faith of the rank and file of the FBI and of the public.
The FBI is an organization that is far too big to have a fair anecdotal accounting of how the agents feel about Director Comey but, as for the public, recent polling shows that most people had a neutral or unsure view of him. A recent NBC News Wall Street Journal poll put Comey’s “approval” rate at 18% (very low) but disapproval rate at an (also low) 26%. A majority of the respondents (56%) either said they were neutral, weren’t sure or had never heard of him. The FBI in general, interestingly, was viewed positively by 52% of all respondents, with just 16% holding a negative view and rest calling themselves neutral.
In the same poll, 30% of those surveyed said that the Comey firing gave them a less favorable view of how Trump is handling his job, with just 6% saying they were more favorable and the rest with their views unchanged. In both the WSJ/NBC poll and a recent Gallup poll, more Americans disapprove of the firing of Comey than approve and, not surprisingly, the results are along party lines.
It is very possible that President Trump removed James Comey to thwart, slow down or at least throw a monkey wrench into the FBI’s investigation about the collusion of his campaign with the Russians. By firing the “top cop,” he may have been trying to signal to the rest of the FBI that anyone can be fired. Intimidation has been a part of Trump’s entire life and his Friday morning Tweet (directed at Comey) was proof positive that intimidation is at least partly on his mind in this case. That strategy will likely yield him nothing; the FBI agents on the case will keep quietly doing their job.
The one thing that Trump may have accomplished is this: he has sidelined the most powerful man in America who was not reliably on his side. Trump can’t fire any member of Congress or any of the circuit court judges who have upheld his travel bans. But he had the legal right to fire the FBI Director and chose to exercise that right.
Trump has liked to say that one of his greatest strengths is that he is unpredictable. Comey, in the last year, has certainly proved that he is also unpredictable. That unpredictability, lack of personal loyalty, and the fact that Comey was an Obama appointee all clearly weighed on the President’s mind. Regardless of who takes over as the FBI Director, it will be Trump’s selection, not Obama’s. The degree to which that hampers the independence of the next Director remains to be seen.
5. What does the Comey saga mean for the future of the Trump Presidency?
It seems inevitable that the future of the Trump Administration will remain polarized and toxic. Trump may have felt that the Democrats would have applauded the firing of James Comey but he was badly mistaken. This is viewed in one way and one way only by the Democrats in Congress: he fired the man who was ultimately in charge of the investigation into wrong-doings by his campaign. As comparisons to Richard Nixon grow, calls for impeachment have started to bubble up.
If Trump has any hope left for bi-partisan cooperation in Congress on anything, he’s going to have to start with the appointment of a new FBI Director that is broadly supported. Most of the Cabinet was approved in the Senate on party-line votes. If Trump wants to silence the calls for a special prosecutor, he needs to pick an FBI Director that can get 90 or more votes.
Unless he successfully engineers an amazing re-set with the Dems, if Trump and the Republicans are going to achieve anything meaningful through the House and Senate, it will almost certainly have to be done through the budget reconciliation process (which requires just 50 votes in the Senate, not the usually 60 to choke off a filibuster). Again, Trump’s best hope of any bi-partisan cooperation on anything is pick a new FBI director that even the Dems will applaud.
In the bigger picture of the Trump White House, the botched messaging of the Comey firing is yet another symptom of how much disfunction exists in the Trump White House. Trump this weekend floated the idea of scratching the daily press briefings, essentially saying that he’s “moving too fast” for his surrogates to have 100% accuracy in sharing his views. His idea, pitched to Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro, is that maybe he’ll eliminate the briefings and have an every-other-week press conference that he conducts personally. It’s clear that the only messenger that Trump trusts is Trump.
Along those lines, a report emerged this morning from Newsweek (building on a New York Times piece from Friday) that Trump is considering a staff shakeup that could potentially involve firing Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Press Secretary Sean Spicer. The emerging danger is that Trump starts relying too much on his own counsel or that from his daughter Ivanka or son-in-low Jared Kushner. Fortunately, it seems for now at least that he’s listening to his foreign policy advisers.
Next, let’s talk about impeachment. In order for the President (or VP, or any other civil officer) to be impeached, a majority of the House of Representatives has to vote in favor and then two-thirds of the Senate needs to vote “convict.” Practically speaking, the legal justification for impeachment is irrelevant. What matters is the political will of the Congress. For now, Trump remains broadly popular with the base that elected him. As long as that remains true, the House members of the GOP are not going to do a thing. But if Trump starts to lose his base of support, then his presidency is in danger. This could happen in the next 18 months if he continues his self-sabotaging activity or it could happen if the Republicans lose the House in the 2018 midterms, certainly a possibility with the GOP tackling the new third rail of politics, health care.
If the Democrats take over the House and Trump is still mired in the high 30’s in favorability ratings, you can expect impeachment proceedings to begin. The question then is how many Republican Senators would support it and whether Trump would even want to go through that process. Again, talk of impeachment is very, very premature. But Trump is heading down that path. The fact that the “I” word keeps getting brought up is evidence of how toxic the President has become with the Democrats in Congress. Still, the Dems would be wise not to talk about impeachment at all until the dynamics are in place to actually accomplish it. Until then, it just comes off as hysterical over-reaction which plays well to Trump with respect to holding his base.
Conclusion: is Trump Guilty of Colluding with the Russians?
Finally, the big question. Is Trump (or his campaign) actually guilty of anything relating to the 2016 presidential collection or is all of this a ruse, as the President has claimed.
My personal view is this (and it’s just a hunch): it’s my opinion that there was very little (if any) coordination or collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians regarding the 2016 election and I find it very unlikely that Trump was personally involved in any collusion efforts at all. More likely, you had two entities (the Trump campaign and the Russians) that had identical goals and operated concurrently towards fulfilling those goals.
That’s my opinion but, golly, Donald Trump has seemed to do everything he can to lead us to believe that there is collusion between him and Russia. There’s his reluctance to ever say a bad word about Vladimir Putin, his decision to fire Comey this week and then to host Lavrov and Kislyak in the Oval Office with Russian state media present but the U.S. press corps barred. He stated in his NBC News interview Thursday that he has “no investments in Russia, none whatsoever.” But what he didn’t say is whether the Russians had investments in him or his businesses or properties. That’s the big unknown and Trump’s statement could be literally true but also misleading.
This is something we still don’t really know, and we likely won’t for a long time.
Thanks for reading.