President Donald Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday could be considered appropriate only in light of a candle’s flicker. Last year, Comey violated FBI practices and Justice Department rules in announcements about the FBI’s Hillary Clinton email investigation. On May 3, he made an error while testifying about Clinton emails before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
If Trump had turned on so much as a flashlight, his conflict of interest would have blinded him. The conflict disqualified him in every ethical way from firing the FBI director. Comey led the agency’s investigation into the possibility of Trump campaign dealings with officials in Russia.
Trump has only one way to push back the dense blanket of suspicion over his firing of Comey: Call for a special counsel, working with an independent staff, to investigate connections of Trump associates to Russia or any other impropriety.
If he could not keep himself from firing Comey, the president should have sought a special counsel simultaneously. He should do so now. Procrastination on this vital act of investigative independence would smother his presidency.
In terms that Trump might find familiar, a person confident of no wrongdoing would show strength by welcoming a tough, independent investigation. A person living in fear of loose ends would show weakness by firing the chief investigator.
Trump botched the firing from the beginning. Rather than tell the FBI director face-to-face, call him or even dispatch a message to him, the president blasted the news from the White House with no regard for anyone but himself. Comey, who was in Los Angeles speaking with a group of FBI agents, learned from a news report on a television playing in the background that he had been fired.
After talking with a small set of staff members Monday, Trump met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who took his newly confirmed position two weeks ago. Sessions and Rosenstein were working on other matters at the While House on Monday. Trump called them in, The New York Times reported. They expressed concerns about Comey, The Times said, and Trump told them to write recommendations to him.
Sessions and Rosenstein, the No. 1 and No. 2 leaders in the Justice Department, submitted their summations to Trump on Tuesday.
Rosenstein delivered damnation. He wrote a memo, addressed to Sessions. The subject line: “Restoring public confidence in the FBI.”
He began by scorching Comey’s July 5 news conference. Comey announced that Clinton would not be prosecuted over a private email server she used for governmental purposes while secretary of state and that the practice had been “extremely careless.”
“I cannot defend the director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails,” Rosenstein wrote, “and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken.” Rosenstein included comments from former attorneys general. They criticized Comey’s course on Clinton.
“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,” he wrote. “It is not the function of the director to make such an announcement. At most, the director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors.”
Rosenstein’s punch line: “The FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a director who understands the gravity of the mistakes, and pledges never to repeat them. Having refused to admit his errors, the director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions.”
Two omissions mar Rosenstein’s memo:
- Comey’s error in telling the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 3 that Huma Abedin forwarded to her husband “hundreds and thousands” of emails rather than the correct “small number” of emails from Clinton, for whom Abedin was presidential campaign vice chair.
- Silence on Russia, the Trump campaign and Comey’s handling of the FBI investigation into them.
The former is an oddly missed opportunity to further discredit Comey. The latter is passive-aggressive concealment.
Sessions followed with a letter to Trump that cited Rosenstein’s memo to convict Comey.
With a salutation of “Dear Mr. President,” Sessions wrote: “The director of the FBI must be someone who follows faithfully the rules and principles of the Department of Justice, and who sets the right example of our law enforcement officials and others in the department. Therefore, I must recommend that you remove Director James B. Comey Jr.”
CONFLICT UPON CONFLICT
As Sessions was providing Trump the ammunition to shoot down Comey, he was under a self-imposed, necessary recusal on the FBI investigation into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. The U.S. says Russia interfered with Clinton’s campaign.
Sessions recused himself March 2 following news reports that he met twice with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. while part of the Trump campaign. He did not tell the Senate about the meetings during his confirmation.
The attorney general fueled the firing even though Comey was working on the Trump campaign-Russia investigation as his top priority, Comey had asked Rosenstein for additional Justice Department resources for the investigation and Boston University public radio station WBUR reported on May 5 that Eric Trump told a golfing author in 2013 that a new Trump golf course was not funded by U.S. banks.
Author James Dodson said Eric Trump told him the reason, “We have all the funding we need out of Russia.” On May 8, Eric Trump denied the report, writing on Twitter, “This story is completely fabricated.”
With Russian matters putting himself and Trump at odds with Comey, Sessions ignored his and Trump’s conflicts of interest, and sent his Comey-condemnation letter to the president.
If these factors were not enough, Trump’s firing letter to Comey contained this odd-and-damning clause: “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”
Conflict of interest was not enough for the dogged Trump and his staff. Action by action, they dug a deeper hole of indignity this week.
Thursday, Lester Holt interviewed Trump at the White House for “NBC Nightly News.”
Asked by Holt about the not-under-investigation clause in the firing, Trump said he asked Comey whether the FBI was investigating him. “I actually asked him,” Trump said. Comey told him he was not under investigation. He did so, Trump said, during a one-on-one White House dinner and during a pair of phone calls.
Also on Thursday, The New York Times reported that, during the dinner, which it said was a week after his inauguration, Trump twice asked Comey to pledge loyalty to him. In reply, The Times reported, Comey twice pledged honesty instead.
Being the one person who could fire the FBI director and being the head of a campaign under investigation to determine connections to Russia, Trump’s personal questions to Comey were unethical and improper.
Such a thought did not guide Trump as he threatened Comey on Friday. “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Asked by Fox News on Friday if he uses recorders, Trump said: “Well, that I can’t talk about. I won’t talk about that.”
The practice was curtailed after President Richard Nixon taped conversations in the White House secretly during the time of Watergate. The tapes played a great part in his resignation.
Trump told Holt that Comey is “a showboat, he’s a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil.”
In an appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe’s rebuttal was stark.
“Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day,” McCabe said.
He also said the Trump campaign-Russia investigation is “highly significant.”
Following the firing of Comey, Trump’s staff — and, prominently, Vice President Mike Pence — said the memo and letter from Rosenstein and Sessions were the basis for Trump’s decision.
Trump told Holt, “I was going to fire Comey — my decision,” adding, “I was going to fire, regardless of recommendation.”
Since he fired Comey, Trump repeatedly said he was having a top legal firm prepare a “certified letter” about his income from Russian sources. Friday, the White House released the letter.
The letter was written March 8 by two tax lawyers for the Washington branch of the firm Morgan Lewis of Philadelphia.
They said Trump received income from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, selling property in Florida to a Russian, and Russians’ and Russian companies’ payments to Trump companies for services such as condominium fees, hotel rooms and rounds of golf.
The letter was certified only in the sense of being sent as certified mail. If that distinction was insufficiently absurd, consider Trump’s decision to use a law firm that was named “by Chambers & Partners’ 2016 ‘Chambers Europe’ guide as Russia Law Firm of the Year,” as a Morgan Lewis news release put it. The firm has a Moscow branch.
If Trump would like to avoid a four-year term whose beginning, middle and end is spelled R-U-S-S-I-A, he will call for a special counsel immediately. He will invite the counsel to investigate even the slightest connection between his campaign, businesses or any other aspect of his life with Russia