Trump's firing of James Comey - what on earth is going on?

Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey either means that he's covering up his campaign's criminal links with Russian agents, or he's punishing a top law enforcement official for not doing exactly what he wants. Neither explanation bodes well for the USA. 

Donald Trump's firing of the head of the FBI, James Comey, is remarkable for at least two reasons.

First, it simply has no real precedent in US political history. Although they formally serve at the pleasure of the President, heads of the FBI generally are regarded as being all but politically untouchable. As noted in this very good summary of what is going on at the moment:

The FBI Director serves a ten-year term precisely in order to insulate against the whims of a President who does not like what—or whom—the FBI is investigating. While the President has legal authority to fire an FBI director ... [t]he [present] situation has no parallel with the only previous FBI director to be removed by a president: President Clinton’s firing of William Sessions, whose ethical misconduct was so extensive that it resulted in a six-month Justice Department investigation and a blistering 161-page report detailing his illicit activities, including flagrant misuse of public funds.

By contrast, Comey putatively was sacked on the basis of a short memo criticising his behaviour during the FBI's investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private server to store emails while she was Secretary of State - an action that may have contravened laws relating to the safe handling of classified information. In particular, the memo asserted that Comey caused "substantial damage" to the reputation and credibility of the FBI because: 

  • Comey personally announced that Clinton would not be prosecuted for her actions in respect of her email server (rather than leaving that decision and announcement to someone in the Attorney General's office);
  • When Comey made that announcement, he mixed in criticism of Clinton's (non-criminal) behaviour when using the private server and during the subsequent investigation; and,
  • Comey then publicly announced some 12 days before the presidential election that this email investigation was being reopened, in breach of conventions not to act in a way that might interfere with an election outcome.  

These actions, of course, attracted severe condemnation at the time from Democrats because of how his actions impacted on Clinton's election chances (and, it must be said, quite a number of former Justice Department officials also criticised Comey's behaviour). But the response of (most of) the Republican side of the divide was quite different.

Here you can watch Trump praising Comey's decision to tell Congress he was reopening the investigation into Clinton, saying that this move "brought back his reputation". And here you can watch now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who passed on the critical memo to Trump and recommended Comey be fired, telling the media that "FBI Director Comey did the right thing when he found new evidence. He had no choice."

So it simply beggers belief that these figures now believe that Comey's actions towards Clinton were so unfair and unprofessional that they warrant his dismissal. 

Which has lots of people instead asking what really lies behind Comey's sacking. The thing that has attracted most attention is the FBI's probe into whether there were any criminal links between members of Trump's campaign and Russia. After all, Comey had just asked for more invesigative resources to expand that inquiry, so surely his firing must be an attempt to stop him digging further?

Well, maybe. But the problem with this explanation is that it rather presumes its own truth - that there were such links, which Trump now is desperate to cover-up. Before you inundate the comments section, I accept there's certainly lots of suggestions and circumstantial evidence that some sort of links did exist. But contrary to the old adage, sometimes you can have smoke without fire (and to prove it, here's an ironically Russian You-Tube clip showing how to do so).

Meaning that there may very well be another explanation for Comey's firing; one that lies in Trump's ego and vengeful nature. Despite "winning" the election, Trump seems unable to let the campaign go. Just a week ago he tweeted out (at 11 pm!): 

FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!

The phony Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?

During that campaign and to this day, Trump genuinely seems to believe that Clinton committed crimes for which the State should (in the words of his followers' chant) "lock her up!" But Comey's decision that there was no basis for prosecution knocked that possibility on the head, which Trump continues to be upset about.

Furthermore, following the election the FBI (with Comey at its head) has continued to probe the Trump campaign-Russia issue, while not doing enough (in Trump's mind) to find out where leaks of classified information damaging to the President are coming from. As this story points out, that also has made Trump pretty unhappy. 

So it may very well be that Trump wanted Comey gone because he's not running (and didn't run) the FBI in the way that Trump wants it to be run. And maybe he thought that a memo criticising Comey for how he was too tough on the Democrat's candidate would give him the political cover he needed to do so. After all, how could his opponents criticise him for sacking the guy that so many of them had called on to resign or be sacked just six months previously?

That in itself is a pretty chilling conclusion. A President getting rid of one of the nation's top law enforcement officers because he hasn't made prosecutorial and investigative decisions in line with what the President wants is shocking. And that's even before we get to the fact that the individual at issue is engaged in a criminal investigation of the President's own election campaign. 

I understand that Trump was elected to be a "change President". I understand that his followers don't want "business as usual" in Washington. But there are some established norms and rules of conduct that exist for very, very good reasons. Trump's decision to go against these and fire an FBI Director whose investigative decisions he simply does not like bodes very badly for the USA's future - as David Frum writes:

The question has to be asked of all the rest of us: Perhaps the worst fears for the integrity of the U.S. government and U.S. institutions are being fulfilled. If this firing stands—and if Trump dares to announce a pliable replacement—the rule of law begins to shake and break. The law will answer to the president, not the president to the law.