Once upon a time it was considered impolite to discuss matters of politics at the dinner table, at cocktail parties, front rows, or anywhere the moneyed set and the glitterati gathered. Nowadays, it seems almost necessary, both politically and socially. In fact, it might be in bad form not to have an opinion about Donald Trump and the latest mishegoss involving his administration. Yet sometimes you just haven’t read the latest headlines (there’s so many of them and they never stop!) and other times it seems like our conversation partner’s grasp of the subject is just a few Tweets they happened to like. In those times, perhaps it’s best to take a step back and make sure you have a command of the basics. Here, a cheat sheet to Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Is The Firing of an FBI Director Constitutional or Even a Big Deal?
Well, constitutionally the president does have the power to fire the FBI director because that person serves at the president’s discretion, but because the FBI has the power to investigate politicians—including the executive branch—everyone has long agreed that the agency should have quite a bit of independence and that its leader should not be treated as just another political appointee, lest a president turn it into his own secret police force like some banana republic authoritatrian. Of course, the FBI can’t be completely separate from any sort of authority derived via democracy, so tradition has basically be a gentlemen’s agreement.
The original idea was that an FBI director could serve until he or she resigns, retires or dies. Of course, J. Edgar Hoover, who controlled the FBI and its predecessor agency for 50 years, amassed a little too much power. It was a whole thing. Leonardo DiCaprio starred in a movie about it. So, Congress decided that their terms should be capped at 10 years.
Indeed, only one FBI director, Williams Sessions (no relation to current attorney general Jeff Sessions) has ever been fired. Though, it was because he was almost comically inept at the job. He enjoyed the pomp and circumstance of the office and unethically exploited the perks but wasn’t great with the whole leadership and responsibility part of the job. His termination was not politically motivated, and indeed the effort spread across two administrations. The George H.W. Bush White House administration investigated the guy and handed off their findings to the incoming Clinton administration and basically said, “Yo, you should fire this guy.” Even still, the Clinton administration, mainly Attorney General Janet Reno, took their sweet time doing their own due diligence and tried to persuade Sessions to step down on his own until they had no choice but to dismiss him. Basically, everyone knew what they were doing was unprecedented and proceeded very carefully. The public and press were well aware of what was going on beforehand. The news was not delivered in a surprise and shocking series of letters one random afternoon.
So, Trump didn’t violate the constitution, but he did violate decades of tradition and normality put in place to ensure the independence of the FBI. And, well, he did this while he was very publicly entangled in an ongoing investigation that threatens his administration.
OK, But What Reason Did The Trump Administration Give For Firing Comey?
The deep irony of all of this is that Trump and his Department of Justice appointees cited the handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton‘s e-mails brouhaha as its main reason. Remember that time that shook everyone when Comey drafted a public letter to congress announcing that the FBI was reviewing more Clinton e-mails just days before the election but the imbroglio amounted to a whole lot of smoke with no fire? Yeah.
The task of making the case to fire Comey fell to deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein who wrote, “Almost everyone agrees that the director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.”
Except, people do disagree about how Comey erred. You literally have people who still think Comey should have “locked her up!” On the other, more fact-based side, you have people who think Comey’s sloppy handling of the situation, particularly in the last few weeks, tipped the race to Trump.
Basically though, the Trump administration was trying to cite Democratic complaints to justify the firing, which no one really believes because on the campaign trail Trump openly praised Comey for his handling of the Clinton situation.
The Trump Administration Thought They Were Being Slick As Hell About This
According to multiple reports, the White House was not expecting any blowback for this. The Washington Post __paints the entire White House communications staff in a complete scramble once they realized this didn’t go over smoothly. They essentially seemed to think, “Hey, we don’t like this guy! Democrats have no love lost for this guy! We’ll just get rid of him and everyone will be happy! Bigly win!” This is, of course, the thinking of a White House led by a real estate developer who has no experience in government. Or politics. Or finesse. Or media relations with anything more sophisticated than the National Enquirer. Trump, on Twitter, continues to defend this way of thinking.
The problem is: 1) As discussed before, it is not normal at all to just casually fire the FBI director under any circumstances. 2) Comey was overseeing an FBI that is overseeing an investigation into Russia’s meddling with the White House.
Oh, Right, the Russia Stuff! What About The Russia Stuff?
The U.S. intelligence community is in agreement that Russia tried to influence the election, mostly through the hacking of e-mails of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign staffers and by disseminating fake news and outright propaganda online, particularly through social media. Their original goal was to shake American’s trust in their own elections and democracy and eventually seemed to morph into outright trying to influence a Trump win.
No one is questioning that it happened, but there’s still a lot of details to fill out in general. The most hot-button of which is whether or not anyone associated with Trump in any way colluded with the Russians to influence the race.
Yes, the results of the the investigation could be deeply embarrassing or delegitimizing for the Trump campaign, but the stakes of the investigation go well beyond Trump.
If you happen to like the basic idea of American democracy you should probably be in agreement that Russia’s interference is something that needs to be investigated and ironed out. Unfortunately, it very much seems like our president is not on that same page and may even view this as some personal witch hunt against him.
How Are Congressional Democrats Reacting?
Their main reaction appears to be to call for a special prosecutor to investigate any possible ties between Trump and Russia.
There is a bit of problem with this in that it would be Attorney General Jeff Session’s job to appoint that special prosecutor, yet he’s already recused himself from involvement in the Russia investigation (he met with the Russian ambassador twice during the campaign, but didn’t disclose that fact). The task would then fall to Deputy AG Rosenstein, but because the decision of firing Comey in the first place was framed as his, that’s probably not going to happen either. Unless, of course, Democrats manage to put enough political pressure on the White House to force their hand.
And The Republicans?
They’re split. A lot seem to be going with the Trump flow, but others, including some powerful senators, like Bob Corker, Jeff Flake and Richard Burr, are at least publicly airing their “skepticism” about the timing of and reasoning for the firing.
Rep. Justin Amash, a Freedom Caucus member, has taking the biggest step by promising to draft legislation to set up an Independent Commission to investigate the whole Russia situation.
Sen. John McCain is also open to an independent commission. Theoretically, an independent commission could offer a bipartisan form of inquiry into Russia completely separate from the executive branch. Democrats are also mostly on board with this idea.
In any event, it speaks to the slapdash nature of the Trump White House in general, that they didn’t even seem to care if the entire Republican party had a heads up or was on the same page.
So What Happens Next?
Well, Trump will nominate someone else for the job of FBI director, but the Senate has the power to confirm the nominee. That undoubtedly will be a whole circus on its own. Trump may announce his pick by the end of the week. Or not! Who knows. Certainly not the White House’s PR shop or genius marketer Sean Spicer.
Meanwhile calls for either a special prosecutor or independent commission have only deepened, and thanks to growing concern from even within the Republican party it’s likely that at least one could come to reality.
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