Was The Russia Investigation The Real Reason For Comey’s Firing? It Sure Seems Like It
Politico reveals what was going on behind the scenes in the week before yesterday afternoon’s surprise firing of F.B.I Director James Comey and, not surprisingly, it had a lot to do with the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the election and the ties between Russia and the Trump campaign:
President Donald Trump weighed firing his FBI director for more than a week. When he finally pulled the trigger Tuesday afternoon, he didn’t call James Comey. He sent his longtime private security guard to deliver the termination letter in a manila folder to FBI headquarters.
He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.
Trump’s firing of the high-profile FBI director on the 110th day since the president took office marked another sudden turn for an administration that has fired its acting attorney general, national security adviser and now its FBI director, whom Trump had praised until recent weeks and had even blew a kiss to during a January appearance.
The news stunned Comey, who saw news of his dismissal on TV while speaking inside the FBI office in Los Angeles. It startled all but the uppermost ring of White House advisers, who said grumbling about Comey hadn’t dominated their own morning senior staff meetings. Other top officials learned just before it happened and were unaware Trump was considering firing Comey. “Nobody really knew,” one senior White House official said. “Our phones all buzzed and people said, ‘What?'”
By ousting the FBI director investigating his campaign and associates, Trump may have added more fuel to the fire he is furiously trying to contain — and he was quickly criticized by a chorus of Republicans and Democrats. “The timing of this firing was very troubling,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican.
Trump had grown angry with the Russia investigation — particularly Comey admitting in front of the Senate that the FBI was investigating his campaign — and that the FBI director wouldn’t support his claims that President Barack Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower.
Bipartisan criticism of Comey had mounted since last summer after the director delivered lengthy statement outlining why no charges would be brought against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server.
But the fallout seemed to take the White House by surprise. Trump made a round of calls around 5 p.m., asking for support from senators. White House officials believed it would be a “win-win” because Republicans and Democrats alike have problems with the FBI director, one person briefed on their deliberations said.
Instead, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told him he was making a big mistake — and Trump seemed “taken aback,” according to a person familiar with the call.
By Tuesday evening, the president was watching the coverage of his decision and frustrated no one was on TV defending him, a White House official said. He wanted surrogates out there beating the drum.
Instead, advisers were attacking one anotherr for not realizing the gravity of the situation as events blew up. “How are you not defending your position for three solid hours on TV?” the White House aide asked.
Two White House officials said there was little communications strategy in handling the firing, and that staffers were given talking points late Tuesday for hastily arranged media appearances. Aides soon circulated previous quotes from Schumer hitting Comey. After Schumer called for a special prosecutor, the White House huddled in press secretary Sean Spicer’s office to devise a strategy and sent “fresh faces” to TV, one White House official said.
By Tuesday night, aides were using TV appearances to spin the firing as a simple bureaucratic matter and call for an end to the investigation. “It’s time to move on,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy press secretary, said on Fox News.
CNN meanwhile is reporting that a Grand Jury convened in connection with the ongoing investigation has begun issuing subpoenas:
Washington (CNN) Federal prosecutors have issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn seeking business records, as part of the ongoing probe of Russian meddling in last year’s election, according to people familiar with the matter. CNN learned of the subpoenas hours before President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey.
The subpoenas represent the first sign of a significant escalation of activity in the FBI’s broader investigation begun last July into possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia.
The subpoenas issued in recent weeks by the US Attorney’s Office in Alexandria, Virginia, were received by associates who worked with Flynn on contracts after he was forced out as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014, according to the people familiar with the investigation.
Robert Kelner, an attorney for Flynn, declined to comment. The US Attorney’s Office in Alexandria, the Justice Department and the FBI also declined to comment.
Investigators have been looking into possible wrongdoing in how Flynn handled disclosures about payments from clients tied to foreign governments including Russia and Turkey, US officials briefed on the matter have told CNN.
The Flynn inquiry is one piece of the broader investigation, which FBI Director James Comey testified in a Senate hearing last week is led jointly by the Alexandria US Attorney’s Office and the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
Flynn was forced to resign as Trump’s national security advisor in February after failing to disclose the nature of phone discussions with Russia’s ambassador in Washington, Sergey Kislyak.
Congressional investigators have also accused Flynn of possibly breaking the law by not properly disclosing a $45,000 payment for an appearance he made at an event in Moscow to celebrate Russia Today. The Russian government-funded news outlet that US intelligence agencies say played a key role in disseminating stolen emails intended to damage the candidacy of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
Adding to all of this, The New York Times reports that Comey was asking for more money to expand the Bureau’s investigation just days before the firing.In other words, as
In other words, as Kevin Drum notes, the decision to fire Comey had nothing to do with what seems to be the after-the-fact arguments made by Deputy Attorney General Ron Rosenstein in the Justice Department memorandum released yesterday that the real reason for Comey’s firing had to do with his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. Somewhat bizarrely, that memorandum echoed many of the complaints that Democrats have made about Comey since the election, especially as it relates to the letter that Comey sent to Congress just over a week before the election in which he revealed that the investigation had been reopened due to the discovery of additional emails on a laptop used by Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her husband. At the time, Trump praised Comey and said it took “a lot of guts” for him to come forward despite the political criticism that he would take for his letter. To believe today, six months later as the Bureau is in the midst of an investigation of Trump’s campaign that the President decided to fire him based solely on the issues surrounding the investigation of Hillary Clinton, and using an argument that sounds like it came from Clinton supporters, simply doesn’t pass the credibility test. Instead, it seems clear to me that Trump acted in a fit of pique in reaction to a Russia investigation that he clearly can’t control on his own and which continues to control the news cycle no matter how hard he and his supporters try to change the subject. Further evidence of this can be seen in the fact that Trump’s letter to Comey advising him that he had been fired stated that Comey had allegedly told Trump on three occasions that he was not a target of the F.B.I.’s investigatin. This would be very surprising if it were true since Comey has generally taken the position of not commenting in response to questions about who may or may not be a target of an ongoing investigation. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Trump is trying to cover anything up, of course, but that’s certainly how it looks to the outside world, and it’s like to spur that investigation on and to
The reaction to last night’s events has been about what you expect, although there have been several surprises. On Capitol Hill, Democrats in the House and the Senate who have spoken publicly on the matter have been basically united in their condemnation of the move in the wake of last week’s testimony from Comey confirming that Trump’s campaign was part of the F.B.I.’s investigation into Russian interference with the election. Many of them have begun calling for a special prosecutor or independent commission, or both, to investigate both these matters and the circumstances behind Comey’s firing. On the Republican side, the reaction has been more mixed. Several Republicans, such as Senators John McCain and Ben Sasse, Jeff Flake, and Richard Burr and Members of Congress such as Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford, Virginia Congressman Barbara Comstock have spoken out against it. On the other hand, many other Republicans have seemingly rallied around the President, including Senators Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham as well as others who dodged questions about whether or not they believe that the firing of Comey makes the need for a special prosecutor all the more apparent. Additionally, just this morning as the Senate opened for business Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a basically milquetoast statement that seemed to stand behind the President and call on the Senate to act quickly to approve the confirmation of a new F.B.I. Director once the President has made his selection known. As of the time I’m writing this, though, most Republicans on Capitol Hill have been silent in response to direct questions or have simply not appeared in public or released any public statements on the matter.
On the opinion and editorial pages, the reaction seems to be overwhelmingly negative. Dana Milbank, for example, speculates that the move could turn the anti-Trump wave into a tsunami by emboldening Trump critics on both the left and the right to keep up the pressure on the White House, call for the House and Senate to step up their investigations into the Russia matter, and lend some degree of mass support for the calls for a special prosecutor or independent investigation. Ruth Marcus comments that the decision and the circumstances surrounding it, coming as it does less than a week after Comey’s revelations about the investigation into Trump’s own campaign, should leave all Americans feeling just a bit nauseous over what is happening in the White House. Eugene Robinson calls it a thuggish abuse of executive power, a notable comment given the eight long years that just ended during which conservatives complained loudly about what they saw as President Obama’s overly zealous extension of Executive Branch authority on a wide variety of issues. The editors of The New York Times, meanwhile, note that the decision casts doubt on the validity of any investigation of the election and the Trump campaign that is conducted by anyone at the Justice Department. Finally, Reason’s Eric Boehm says that the decision looks “very, very bad” for the Trump Administration and joins others in calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate all of the issues regarding Russian interference in the election and any ties to between Trump officials or advisers. Boehm continues:
We don’t know whether Comey’s firing is a shrewd political calculation designed to cover-up something Trump doesn’t want the world to know—“Nixonian” has been the word of evening on cable news—or whether it was the impulsive decision of a president who appears to lack much concern for the prestige of the office he holds or for the limits of its powers.
On the question of whether Trump broke laws or whether Comey’s firing was part of a cover-up, Trump deserves to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. The same principle does not apply to the political ramifications of Tuesday’s firing.
Trump should lose any benefit of the doubt that he’s been getting from members of Congress and the general public.
That highlighted sentence is perhaps the most important thing that anyone has said in reaction to yesterday’s events. In ordinary times, a President’s decision to fire an F.B.I Director, while it would be extraordinary, is deserving of at least some benefit of the doubt. Even though the Director’s position is meant to be somewhat politically independent, hence the reason that the term for Directors runs for a period guaranteed not to coincide with any one particular Presidency, it is still a position that serves ‘at the pleasure of the President.’ This means that a President who has good reason to do so can and should remove a Director from office when appropriate and replace him with someone better suited for the role. There comes a time, though, when a President’s decision on issues like this loses that status, and this is one of those times. Firing the Director of the F.B.I. in the middle of an investigation that could implicate people close to the President himself is not only inappropriate, but it raises many of the same questions that were raised by Nixon’s decision to fire Archibald Cox. As was the case back then, it should be the impetus not to back away from the investigation of this matter, but to make sure that it continues until we get answers to all of the relevant questions. That may include the need for a special prosecutor independent of the Justice Department to oversee the investigation, and it most certainly includes investigations by the House and Senate to make sure that the public is made aware of all relevant facts surrounding what appears to have happened in connection with the recently concluded elections. The integrity and legitimacy of the Republic demand no less, and attention should now turn to Congress and the White House to make sure they do the right thing.
Note: The original version of this post was updated to add a link to the New York Times report that Comey had asked for an increase in funding for the Russia/Trump investigation just days before being fired.