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.

Comments (20)

by Anne on May 11, 2017
Anne

Short, succinct and insightful - from another blogsite.

"Employees fired by Trump

Sally Yates
Preet Bharara
James Comey

Employees investigating Trump

Sally Yates
Preet Bharara
James Comey".

by Rich on May 11, 2017
Rich

Pretty bad.

But, a question for an NZ legal expert:

- would either the allegations against Hilary Clinton (carelessness or recklessness with government information) or against Trump (working with a foreign power) amount to a criminal offence if committed here by a New Zealand politician?

 

by Andrew Geddis on May 11, 2017
Andrew Geddis

@Rich,

Can't really speculate on whether Trump's behaviour would be an offence in NZ, because we've no idea what he actually has done!

But Clinton's behaviour probably would not be an offence in NZ - the law requires either:

  • actually "communicating" information to another person "knowing that such communication or delivery is likely to prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand"; or
  • keeping a copy of a document that may harm NZ's security or defence "with intent to prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand".
There's no evidence Clinton communicated with anyone in a way that would have the requisite effect in NZ law, and no suggestion she intended to prejudice her country's security or defence.
by Murray on May 11, 2017
Murray

Is there any situation under the American system that a new election for President happen. It seems that the whole administration could be tainted so there could be issues with the Vice President.

by Andrew Geddis on May 12, 2017
Andrew Geddis

@Murray,

No. There isn't. The US has fixed 4-yearly election dates for President, with no provision in their law for a "special" or "snap" election. So iboth Trump and Pence were unable to be President (because of impeachment or resignation or otherwise), then here's the complete "line of succession":

2. House Speaker Paul Ryan

3. President pro tempore of the Senate Orrin Hatch

4. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

5. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin

6. Defense Secretary James Mattis

7. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

8. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke

9. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue

10. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross

11. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta

12. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price

13. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson

14. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao

15. Energy Secretary Rick Perry

16. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

17. Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin

18. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly

by Andre Terzaghi on May 12, 2017
Andre Terzaghi

I'm no Constitutional lawyer, but doesn't that line of succession only apply if the President and the next ones down the list are rendered unable to assume the office at effectively the same time?

As I understand it, if there's time the 25th Amendment kicks in. After the President becomes the ex-President, the VP becomes President, and then gets to nominate a new Vice President, to be confirmed by the Senate. Then the whole line of succession resets.

This got illustrate by the downfall of the Nixon administration. After Agnew bailed out, Nixon nominated Ford (then House Minority leader, not in the line of succession) for the new VP. After Nixon bailed and Ford became President, Ford nominated Rockefeller (Governor of New York at the time) for VP.

by Andrew Geddis on May 12, 2017
Andrew Geddis

@Andre,

Sure - you are right! I guess I took Murray as meaning Trump goes but Pence can't step up because he's too tainted by whatever it was that caused Trump to go in the first place.

by Andre Terzaghi on May 12, 2017
Andre Terzaghi

Thanks. I wanted to clarify that point about the succession. For a long time I'd been under a misunderstanding about how the succession worked. Possibly reinforced by a lot of incorrect info getting bandied about in workplace conversations during Clinton's impeachment.

It's hard to come up with a scenario that simultaneously disqualifies Trump and Pence. Definitive proof of both of them actively colluding with Russians? While that's not very far-fetched with respect to Trump (though I don't think he's got the smarts, self-control or attention span to have actually done it and kept it hidden), I really can't see Pence having actively colluded with Russia.

by Rich on May 12, 2017
Rich

It's important to remember that no President has ever been impeached, convicted and dismissed - mostly because they need to be convicted in the Senate by a 2/3 majority.

It all really comes down the composition of Congress. If the Democrats control the house after the mid-terms, they'll probably impeach Trump, or try to, but won't be able to get a conviction in the Senate (will probably run out of time before it's concluded).

The only way it could happen is if Trump really stuffed up and the Democrats won a landslide and got 2/3 of the Senate. Then they could impeach and dismiss Trump, and probably try and impeach Pence on general principles (this is actually a political process, not a real court).

What they could possibly do is agree a compromise by which a respected neutral figure (Colin Powell?) becomes President. This could be achieved by blocking Pence's choice of VP (which requires confirmation) and then either: persuading Pence to nominate Powell and then resign, or impeaching Pence without him having a VP confirmed, whereupon the Senate President becomes president, nominates Powell as VP, has this confirmed, and promptly resigns in his favour.

 

by Andre Terzaghi on May 12, 2017
Andre Terzaghi

Rich, it's not even mathematically possible for the Dems to win a 2/3 Senate majority in 2018. They have 48 now, and there's only 8 Republican held Senate seats being contested in 2018: Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi.

So for impeachment and conviction to happen, a lot of Republicans will have to vote against their own president. Which could happen if they decide Trump is more damaging to their personal political futures than the everlasting fury of Trump's loyal base.

 

by Rich on May 12, 2017
Rich

I was wondering that and couldn't be bothered to look it up. How do half-senate elections work, out of interest?

by Andre Terzaghi on May 12, 2017
Andre Terzaghi

The very short version: House of Representatives members have two year terms, Presidents have four year terms, senators have six year terms. The US has nationwide elections every two years for the entire House. At the same time, one third of the Senate also comes up for re-election. So for for any given state, one of the two senate seats is up for grabs in two out of three of the biennial elections. It also means that a Senator elected in a Presidential year comes up for re-election in a midterm year and vice versa.

If you're interested beyond that brief blurb, then look it up. But be warned, the oddities of American electoral systems and the state-by-state variations can be an incredible time-suck.

by Fentex on May 13, 2017
Fentex

There's another option apart from impeachment, for getting rid of Trump.

In the wake of Kennedy's shooting and a problem created by his still breathing for a while though not being able function - and previous observations by scholars that the Vice President only being able to assumme power on the death of the President creates a problem if the President is incapacitated but not killed the 25th Amendment was passed

Sectiion 4 of whihc alloowws for the President ot be reomved if incapacitated - on the decision of the Vice President and (I think) eight memebers of the cabinet. If not ratified in four days by Congress the President resumes his authority.

Having noticed in the past how heavily the Presidency has weighed on perfectly fit and alert people I wonder if Trump  going to crash under it's weight (actually demented or not) and provide obvious jusitifcation for being removed?

Would the threat encourage him to resign for his 'health'?

He's such a child I wonder if he would grab that lifeline or not?

by Anne on May 13, 2017
Anne

If he knew he was going down he would grab the llifeline. But it wouldn't stop him from whining and snivelling all the way from the White House to Trump Tower and beyond.  Everybody but him will be to blame of course. And still his dim witted supporters will support him. 

by Andre Terzaghi on May 13, 2017
Andre Terzaghi

Fentex, the only advantage the 25th Amendment has is the President can be temporarily removed very swiftly by covert actions. But if the president chooses to fight to stay on, ultimately 2/3 of both the House and Senate, the Vice President, and half the Cabinet have to agree to remove him. This is a higher bar than impeachment, which only requires half the House and 2/3 of the Senate.

So ultimately, the 25th is really only useful for something like the president totally losing it and trying to launch nukes because some foreign nation expropriated one of his hotels or clear sudden mental incapacitation.

by Jude on May 13, 2017
Jude

On the evidence of the first 110 days, Andre, I wouldn't rule it out. 

by Fentex on May 14, 2017
Fentex

the 25th is really only useful for something like the president totally losing it and trying to launch nukes because some foreign nation expropriated one of his hotels or clear sudden mental incapacitation.

Yes, that is the theory - that his ego will fracture under pressure and his mental incompetence become clear.

Personally I think, should he get offside Congress, that everyone would prefer impeachment because it would provide more platforms and time for everyone to fight over to try and be a 'hero' standing resolute against the threat to the Republic.

by Charlie on May 14, 2017
Charlie

Andrew: First, it simply has no real precedent in US political history. 

Nope.

Bill Clinton fired William Sessions on taking office

by Andrew Geddis on May 14, 2017
Andrew Geddis

@Charlie,

And if you'd got as far as the quoted extract in the very next paragraph, you would have read:

[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.

Hence my claim of there being "no real precedent", as opposed to "no FBI director has ever been fired before".

by Charlie on May 16, 2017
Charlie

If we're going to compare conspiracy theories:

Clinton fired William Sessions the day before Vince Foster 'committed suicide'

(For those too young to know, Foster was the guy who was about to give evidence against Hillary in the Whitewater inquiry)

Move along....nothing to see here.... ;-)

 

 

 

 

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