There were many reasons why FBI director James B. Comey should have been seen long ago as the wrong man for such a sensitive job. So why was he fired now? In his brief letter terminating Comey, President Trump wrote that he was firing him to restore "public trust and confidence" in the bureau that the attorney general and deputy attorney general concluded he had lost.
But the manner and timing in which Comey was fired may undermine public trust in a pillar of our democracy—the impartial, nonpartisan rule of law. Though Comey, through injurious public statements and false testimony, clearly damaged both his office and its standing, the timing of his dismissal suggests that President Trump may have acted to eliminate a political or legal threat rather than in the interests of the public or the beleaguered bureau.
Trump's dismissal letter makes no explicit reference to the ostensible cause of Comey's removal—his much-criticized mishandling of the criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of state and Comey's inappropriate, public characterization of her conduct as "extremely careless" after clearing her last July. But Trump's brief letter hints at the president's growing frustration over Comey's refusal to clear him of possible collusion with Russia's meddling in last year's presidential campaign, despite having informed him "on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation," as Trump wrote.
Many Republicans and Democrats had long called for Comey's dismissal, for different reasons. But Trump could have fired the man who had helped make him president at any point after being sworn in on January 20. He did not do so. So once again, why now?
Trump's critics, and not only Democrats, say that he wanted to change the political subject in Washington away from possible ties between his campaign and Russia's alleged interference in the presidential election. Russia was back on front pages and television news this week because of testimony Monday by Sally Yates, the former holdover acting attorney general whom Trump also summarily fired, ostensibly for refusing to help implement his executive order suspending refugees and travel from several predominantly Muslim countries. "Sally Yates' testimony was incredibly damaging to the Trump administration," said Kori Schake, a Republican at the Hoover Institution and former Defense Department official who opposed Trump's nomination as president.
Administration statements about Comey's firing also raise questions: while Trump's letter says that Sessions supported Comey's dismissal, Sessions was supposed to have recused himself from matters affecting the Department of Justice's investigation into Russia. Is urging the president to fire the F.B.I. director while his agents are actively investigating contacts between Trump's campaign and Russia's interference in America's presidential election consistent with such recusal?
Concern about Trump's relations with Russian president Vladimir Putin was not allayed by today's White House meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who joked to reporters about Comey's dismissal. Whether or not one believes that Comey should have been fired, Trump's stature was not enhanced by a senior Russian official chuckling about America's latest political trauma.
Finally, there is a contradiction inherent in the White House's explanation of President Trump's decision. The president "terminated" Comey immediately, supposedly because Comey was unfair to Hillary Clinton and her aides. Is this the same president who welcomed "lock her up" cheers from supporters and his national security adviser at campaign rallies? The same president who as a candidate praised Comey for his "guts" in publicly announcing that Clinton had been careless and that he was reopening the investigation into her emails shortly before the election? Is this the same president who blew air kisses at Comey in January when they appeared together at a ceremony honoring law-enforcement officers?
In Trump's defense, Comey consistently overstepped his mandate and made terrible mistakes, most recently in testimony on Capitol Hill, which the Justice Department had to correct. He falsely testified, for instance, that Huma Abedin, Clinton's aide, had routinely forwarded Clinton's emails to the server of her husband, who was not cleared to see classified information. She had not done so, the DOJ correction declared. Comey's public statements often raised profound questions about his judgment and lack of respect for the F.B.I.'s rules and traditions. As Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein asserted in a memo recommending that Comey be fired, it wasn't the director's job to announce in the Clinton investigation that "the case should be closed without prosecution"—that was the Justice Department's call. "We do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation," wrote Rosenstein.
Trump seems to have miscalculated the likely reaction to the timing and manner of his dismissal of Comey, which has triggered a political backlash, primarily but not just among Democrats. Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer warned Trump that he was making a "bad mistake" in dismissing Comey now, though Schumer himself has expressed reservations about Comey's effectiveness. At worst, Trump's action could enhance mistrust in him and his administration and suspicion that he could be engaging, as Schumer also asserted, in a coverup of his campaign's ties to Russia.
Will the public believe Trump's assertions or conclude that the president is acting as President Nixon did in the "Saturday Night Massacre" in 1973, when he fired Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor investigating the burglary that eventually destroyed his administration? How the questions about the Trump administration's actions are answered will be crucial in this regard. Why did Rosenstein decide to urge Comey's dismissal? Was it his idea or Trump's? Was anyone at the White House involved in that decision? Why did Rosenstein not wait for the outcome of the Justice Department inspector general's inquiry into Comey's actions? Will that investigation continue after his dismissal? Will Republicans join Democrats in calling for the appointment of an independent counsel to continue the Russia investigation?
While administration and F.B.I. officials asserted today that the investigation into Russia's past and continuing meddling in the presidential campaign would continue, much depends on whom Trump chooses to succeed Comey. Only someone of impeccable moral and legal credentials—widely regarded as nonpartisan and politically independent—is likely to be seen as legitimate. Absent such an appointment, questions about Trump's conduct and motives seem destined to grow.