In an entirely unforeseen and stunning move, President Donald Trump dismissed FBI’s controversial director James Comey on Tuesday over his handling of the criminal investigation of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.
The director was overseeing FBI investigations into ties between Trump campaign aides and Russia in the context of alleged meddling by latter in the 2016 presidential election to defeat Clinton, and whether there was any collusion.
Questions were inevitably raised thus if the firing was an attempt to shut down the Russia probe that has dogged Trump’s young presidency since the start and had caused the dismissal of Trump’s first National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the recusal from the investigations of attorney general Jeff Sessions.
Comparisons were drawn, inevitably also, to one of the darkest chapters in recent American political history — the Watergate scandal, at the height of which, in 1973, then embattled President Richard Nixon had fired the special prosecutor investigating him triggering what is now remembered as the Saturday Night Massacre.
The White House was not prepared for the backlash and Trump defended his decision in a Tweet on Wednesday in a string of tweets. “Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike. When things calm down, they will be thanking me!,” he wrote in one.
In another, he accused Democrats of flip-flopping saying they they had said “some of the worst things about James Comey, including the fact that he should be fired, but now they play so sad!”
Trump informed Comey of his decision to fire him in a letter Tuesday: “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,” Trump wrote.
He added, “It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission.”
In a separate statement the White House said Trump informed Comey that “he has been terminated and removed from office”, based on the recommendations of both deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein and attorney general Jeff Sessions.
“The FBI is one of our Nation’s most cherished and respected institutions and today will mark a new beginning for our crown jewel of law enforcement,” said President Trump, according to the statement.
Comey, who learned of his firing while speaking to FBI employees at the agency’s field office in Los Angeles, is a life-long Republican and was appointed director by President Barack Obama for a standard 10-year tenure, of which he completed only three and a half years.
His reputation for uprightness and standing up to political pressure took a severe knock last July when he, first, called a press conference to announce the FBI had found not prosecutable against Clinton, but had chastised her for her use of a private email server. Months later, and just days ahead of the November 8 election, he told congress the case was being reviewed, which in Clinton world doomed her run. He eventually gave her a clean chit, but the damage had been done.
While the White House did not give details in its statement, nor did Trump’s letter to Comey, it released a memo by Rosenstein — Sessions, the attorney general, has recused himself rom the Russia probe — that gave reasons for Comey’s firing: “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.
“… 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.
“ … The Director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation.”
The Clinton campaign, which has blamed Comey’s untimely statements for their candidate’s defeat among other reasons, was not impressed. “I’m not shedding any tears for Comey personally -he hurt FBI’s reputation- but I do worry whether we ever get to the bottom of Russia now,” Brian Fallon, the campaign’s erstwhile spokesman wrote on Twitter, adding. “The only thing that could do more to erode faith in independence of FBI than Comey staying is Comey being fired. This is 100% political.”
“This is Nixonian,” Democratic senator Bob Casey wrote on Twitter.
This is Nixonian. Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein must immediately appoint a special prosecutor to continue the Trump/Russia investigation.— Senator Bob Casey (@SenBobCasey) May 9, 2017
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the senate, alleged a pattern in Trump’s dismissals starting with that of acting attorney general Sally Yates, who had told the White House about Flynn’s lying, then New York US attorney Preet Bharara, whose office was reportedly investigating Trump’s health secretary, and now Comey.
Even Republicans were critical. “While the President has the legal authority to remove the Director of the FBI, I am disappointed in the President’s decision to remove James Comey from office,” Senator John McCain said in a statement.