May 12, 2017

The Unprecedented Firing of the FBI Director

On May 9, U.S. President Donald Trump stunningly fired FBI Director James Comey.

• It is difficult to accurately assess the full impact of the May 9 firing of FBI Director James Comey by President Donald Trump.

• If the fallout from Comey’s firing—and the underlying investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 election—breaks along partisan lines, the damage to government accountability will be profound.

• The notion that President Trump fired Comey for the reasons stated by the administration is highly implausible. 

• The ultimate impact of Comey’s firing on government accountability and the integrity of independent federal law enforcement rests on whether Congress can find ways to address the myriad issues stemming from Comey’s dismissal in a nonpartisan and collaborative manner.

On May 9, U.S. President Donald Trump stunningly fired FBI Director James Comey. The termination of the nation’s top investigator, who was actively leading an ongoing and highly sensitive investigation into the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election—as well as the extent of improper contacts or collusion between individuals connected to the Trump campaign (and administration) and the Russian government—is unprecedented. Indeed, the term ‘unprecedented’ has been in heavy use since the election of the first U.S. president with no government or military experience; most recently, it was used to describe the details revealed in the May 8 testimony at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing about the resignation of Lt. General Michael Flynn from his post as national security advisor due to concerns over the potential for Russian blackmail. Yet in the midst of so many unrivaled ‘firsts’ from a U.S. presidential administration, the firing of the FBI director in the middle of such sensitive and vital investigations is arguably the most troubling.

Along with President Trump’s letter dismissing Director Comey, the White House released two letters from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein dated May 9 that were ostensibly used by the president as the justification for Comey’s termination. The stated cause for the termination was Comey’s controversial actions concerning the investigation into the handling of government emails on a private server by Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State. During a July 2016 press conference, Comey announced that no criminal charges would be brought in the matter, though he went on to describe Secretary Clinton’s handling of the emails as ‘extremely careless.’ Then, in a late-October 2016 letter to Congress that was immediately made public, Comey wrote that the FBI was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server due to new information; the reopened investigation was quickly closed again when the issue proved to be far less significant than initially described. Without question, Comey’s actions were extremely controversial and were widely viewed to have violated a number of Justice Department norms. However, Comey’s statements were also widely viewed to be enormously detrimental to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and were in fact celebrated—and directly praised—by both President Trump and Attorney General Sessions at the time they occurred. 

To be clear, the president has the legal authority to fire the FBI director. Yet the notion that Trump fired Director Comey for the reasons stated by the administration—given the fact that both Trump and Sessions had made statements in strong support of the very actions they are now using to justify his dismissal—stretches the meaning of implausibility to the highest degree. This implausibility is only bolstered by the timing of the firing; the actions cited as the primary reasons for Comey’s removal each occurred more than six months ago, and Trump has now been in office for more than three months. Thus, given the wholly unconvincing justification, there is arguably even greater cause for concern regarding the integrity and impartiality of the ongoing investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election. Indeed, the repercussions and implications of Comey’s firing will put even more strain on an already unstable political environment.

Comey’s dismissal is also likely to be highly consequential in terms of public trust that national security organs such as the FBI—which not only plays a vital role in protecting the U.S. from terror attacks, but also in holding government officials accountable—can maintain their non-political role. Whoever occupies the position of FBI director is in a unique position to conduct an investigation into the highest levels of government that is institutionally unburdened by partisan politics. That the dismissal of Comey comes in the middle of such an investigation—perhaps the only truly nonpartisan investigation into Russia’s efforts to undermine the American democratic process—will cast a long shadow of doubt over the ability to effectively police those in power. The comparisons of the unfolding crisis to the abuse of power and obstruction of justice scandals under President Nixon fail to account for the hyper-partisanship in Congress that is also without precedent. The issue of simply determining the full extent of the well-documented and obvious Russian interference in the 2016 election was a fully partisan and paralyzed affair before President Trump fired the man in charge of the sole nonpartisan investigation into the matter. If the firing of the FBI director under these circumstances—with very real reason for concerns of impropriety on the part of the administration—becomes yet another divisive partisan issue, the implications for the very fabric of the American form of government will be dire.


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