With a series of continuous, vertical scratchings on official letterhead, President Donald Trump put an end to the James Comey era — at least in terms of Comey’s official employment at the FBI; it’s highly doubtful we’ve seen the last of him. The timing was curious, the reasoning was ridiculous, and the whole thing was rolled out in such a calamitous fashion, it made the end of an Apprentice episode seem outright professional by comparison. But overall, regardless of the precipitating factors, it was a dumb move. Optically and politically, it was profoundly stupid.
First, let’s examine the alleged reasons behind Comey’s dismissal. In a vacuum, they are entirely rational, outside of one, however, they’re ludicrous. Trump, upon the recommendation of the Department of Justice (namely Attorney General Jeff Sessions — the same man who lied under oath about meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and thus, subsequently recused himself from the investigation Comey was heading, looking into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, but more on that later — and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein). According to Trump via Sessions and primarily Rosenstein, it was quite simple: James Comey’s unorthodox behavior in handling the Hillary Clinton email investigation had eroded the public’s faith in him to effectively do his job.
Here’s the bulk of Rosenstein’s memo:
The Director was wrong to usurp the Attorney General?s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution. It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement. At most, the Director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors. The Director now defends his decision by asserting that he believed Attorney General Loretta had a conflict. But the FBI Director is never empowered to supplant federal prosecutors and assume command of the Justice Department. There is a well-established process for other officials to step in when a conflict requires the recusal of the Attorney General. On July 5, however, the Director announced his own conclusions about the nation’s most sensitive criminal investigation, without the authorization of duly appointed Justice Department leaders.
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. Derogatory information sometimes is disclosed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it gratuitously. The Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial. It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.
He goes on to cite the opinions of several former department officials who concur with his assessment and he closes the memo by stating that Comey’s inability to recognize how he mishandled the Clinton email situation solidified his status as persona non grata with Congress and the general public.
Rosenstein’s assessment is accurate, but Trump and Sessions are brazenly exploiting it for their own gain. Neither Trump nor Sessions had any previous issues with the way Comey handled the situation, in fact, Trump praised and Sessions defended him multiple times over the last six months. Trump previously said Comey “did the right thing” and that he “brought back his reputation” when he publicly stated that he was reopening the Clinton email investigation.
So what changed?
Last night Kellyanne Conway went on Anderson Cooper to defend the president, and continually tap danced around Cooper’s questions, never saying what had transpired to prompt Comey’s firing. All of the presented information that led to the decision was well-known for months upon months. Why now, in the middle of a serious investigation, would the president make this move?
According to a report from Politico early this morning citing two advisors, Trump had recently “grown enraged” over the Russia investigation and its continual presence within daily media coverage. One advisor said he would scream at the TV when the subject was breached. He wants this whole pesky Russia thing to go away, now.
Trump and Sessions saw an opening with Comey. As hard as it may be to believe, they seem to have thought people would actually buy their story; the administration thought they could sell this based upon Comey’s sullied reputation on both sides of the aisle. The twisted logic utilized here is rather astounding. The public cares about the Russia connections, the public wants an investigation—did the Trump administration really think everyone would just forget about the whole thing?
And furthermore, the way in which Comey was fired, the abrupt nature of it, makes it all the more suspicious—it’s outright despotic. This morning the New York Times reported that Comey asked for more money for the Russia investigation just a few days ago. This adds to the whole “he was getting too close” narrative.
This decision makes the Trump administration look guilty; it’s Archibald Cox part 2.
And when you compound the Comey firing with the unceremonious dismissals of Sally Yates and Preet Bharara, both of whom were also involved in Trump/Russia investigations, the situation looks patently Nixonian—there’s no way around the comparison. And then factor in the involvement of Jeff Sessions and the whole thing grows all the more Cthulhu-like. Sessions recused himself from all things Russia, and yet here he is playing a major role in firing the man running the Russia investigation.
That is not a recusal, that is a highly-successful workaround.
Now if the firing wasn’t done out of desperation, then it was monumentally foolish, just brazenly idiotic. The optics here look horrendous. Trump is incensed over the Russia coverage and yet everything he does adds more fuel to the fire.
This is not the way to convince the public that the Russia story is just media-crafted, “fake news”.
It will be very interesting to see who Trump appoints to replace Comey. If the next FBI director is a Trumper with questionable credentials, and the Russia investigation is closed shortly thereafter, Trump will have climbed another few rungs up the autocratic ladder.
But will the GOP care? I’d wager not so much; most will fall in line and kiss the ring.
With each month that passes, Trump’s grows more tyrannical and his disdain for the institutions that separate and limit the powers of our government grow more obvious.
If his administration were just a little more competent, every move he made wouldn’t hit with that same meaty thud and pulverize through the media like a Kremlin-coated tidal wave.
Perhaps, in an odd way, we should be a bit grateful for his incompetence.
Previously published on The Overgrown.