As Forrest Gump might have said, any day with the Trump Administration is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. Yesterday, we got the decision from President Trump to fire the Director of the FBI, James Comey. And, to accentuate the bizarre, bolt from the blue aspect of the decision, Comey apparently learned of the decision when the news flashed across the TV screen behind him while he was giving a speech, and he initially chuckled and thought it was a joke.
The White House says that Trump acted on the recommendation of senior officials in the Justice Department, who concluded that Comey botched the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s questionable email practices and, in the process, caused “substantial damage” to the credibility and reputation of the FBI that has “affected the entire Department of Justice.”
The Deputy Attorney General, Rod J. Rosenstein, prepared a memorandum citing reasons for Comey’s discharge that stated: “I cannot defend the director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.” Among other mistakes, Rosenstein cited Comey’s curious July 5 press conference, where Comey announced that charges would not be pursued against Clinton but then castigated her creation of the servers and her handling of confidential materials. Rosenstein stated that Comey acted “without the authorization of duly appointed Justice Department leaders” and added: “Compounding the error, the director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation . . . we never release it gratuitously . . . It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”
There is truth the Rosenstein’s statement about a bipartisan consensus that Comey’s handling of the email investigation involved a lot of mistakes; Comey’s actions and his decision to make an abrupt, pre-election announcement of a renewed investigation into Clinton’s email servers were criticized by former attorney generals in both Republican and Democratic administrations. And only this week, the FBI had to correct misstatements Comey made in recent testimony to Congress about the email investigation.
But there is something very unsettling about the Trump Administration’s abrupt decision to discharge Comey for actions he took months ago, because the decision comes in the midst of an ongoing investigation into Russian influence into the last presidential election and the actions of the Trump campaign in relation to the potential Russian involvement. Trump’s letter to Comey giving him the boot oddly acknowledged the ongoing investigation, stating: “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.’’ And Rosenstein has only been at his Department of Justice post for two weeks, which suggests that his first job assignment in his new position was to consider whether Comey should be fired.
Not surprisingly, Democrats are up in arms about the decision, which they compare to Richard Nixon’s infamous “Saturday night massacre” of Justice Department officials, and members of Congress are calling for an investigation. I think an investigation makes sense, but until then I’m going to reserve judgment and see what develops. There’s no doubt that Comey had his issues, and it may well be that — unfortunate timing aside — the White House and the Department of Justice had legitimate concerns that he simply was incapable of handling the kind of highly sensitive investigations the FBI must undertake in a non-partisan way. On the other hand, the timing is unfortunate, and naturally gives rise to suspicions about what really happened here. A through investigation will help to establish the facts and clear the air.