TLDR UpFront: On Tuesday evening the White House fired FBI Director Comey on the recommendations of the Attorney General. After two days of statements from Executive and Congressional leadership – President Trump blew a hole in his own administrations narrative by saying he would’ve fired Comey regardless. Now confusion has turned into crisis and the Russian case grows in severity. All of this occurs against the backdrop of twice-poxed political parties hating Comey because he would not pick a side therefore leading partisans to believe he was working for the other side. The Republic has lost a leader whose career has demonstrated the kind of Constitutional and legal independence we desperately need, even if we hate it.
Full Context in the Back: Without any apparent warning and giving a dubious rationale, President Trump canned FBI Director James Comey Tuesday evening on the recommendations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Neither the President, nor Attorney General, had the courage to look Comey in the eyes as the pink-slip was delivered. The Director found out about the dismissal while giving a speech in Los Angeles to potential FBI recruits as the news scrolled across the bottom of a TV monitor. (1)
Avoiding the obvious, and easy, “You’re Fired” jokes or too-cute naming-the-night such as “Tuesday Trimming”, what the heck is going on? What led to this point?
It’s clear that Comey has not had many political allies in the last few months. And although the story is well known it is often known through a political partisan spin. Here is the InfoMullet’s take on it.
Some know the Director’s personal history prior to the campaign, but it’s worth repeating again and again because its important to understand James Comey has a track record that goes back far before these incidents. From a 2013 biopic, when he was appointed, are some key highlights:
“James Comey, President Obama’s reported pick to head the FBI, is a Republican. But he’s most known for being a vocal dissenter working as the deputy attorney general during the Bush administration. In one dramatic incident when President George W. Bush was seeking re-approval of the wiretapping program, Comey stonewalled the administration at the hospital bedside of Attorney General John Ashcroft. “I was angry,” Comey testified about the incident. “I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general.”
But that was not the only time he spoke out against the executive.
In 2005, the Justice Department was compiling a legal memo on “enhanced interrogation” (which some would call torture). And Comey wasn’t happy with it — at all. In e-mails with his then-Chief of Staff Chuck Rosenberg, he voiced strongly worded dissent that the administration would come to regret its push to allow these techniques to continue.”(1)
Stopping the approval of warrantless wiretapping in 2003? Dissenting against enhanced interrogation in 2005? Why does this man not have medals?
But it’s 2017 and the country is in a twitter and facebook fed what-have-you-done-for-me-in-the-last-24-hours mood. Tribal partisanship aligned to political party seems to often trump fundamental principles. And Comey stepped directly into this buzz-saw. In the Presidential campaign of 2016 Comey first went out of his way to publicly announce he was clearing Clinton in the investigation of her emails. A controversial move all on its own since the FBI normally does not make such announcements and it should’ve been done by Democratic Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Comey thought such an announcement would compromise the integrity of the FBI’s investigation, make it be seen as a political tool.
But in the same press conference he cleared Clinton, he also made it clear clear that he believed Clinton had lied to the American public, which although not a criminal act didn’t win him any friends on the left.
Then – just days before the election Comey reopened the case with an infamous letter to Congress heard round the world. The InfoMullet has always believed Comey was faced with an impossible choice: alert Congress in his own terms on a Friday or file the warrant on Monday and have Brietbart break the story and lose control. For as much as many may wish otherwise, it’s unlikely that in the alternate history where Comey doesn’t alert Congress that court-beat reporters are going to miss reporting on a warrant that includes the terms “Weiner…hard drive…Clinton.”
Still, Democrats savaged Comey invoking phrases like “violation of the Hatch Act” with sage nods and mutterings of arresting him – even though they had no clue what that act meant. (2) And since Clinton’s loss many of her supporters have maintained the narrative of: “but not for the actions of Comey, Clinton would been President today.” In a tragic irony worthy of Sophocles, long before Trump pulled the trigger, Democratic leaders such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanded Comey’s ouster for being too close to Trump, and too unwilling to investigate Russia. (9)
But it was the investigation of Russia beginning over the summer and continuing through the beginning of Trump’s administration that brought the hate on from the GOP. There had always been rumors of such, including the notorious BuzzFeed article. After Michael Flynn lost his NSA job after a leaked wiretap indicated inappropriate contact with the Russian Ambassador, a leak many believe originated with the FBI, Democrats smelled blood in the water. Comey became a regular star on committee hearing meetings, dancing around what he could and could not comment on, and increasingly irritating his boss at 1600 Pennsylvania.
The hard part about being an investigator in a sharply divided political climate is if you’re doing your job well, everyone will hate you. A partisan hack will be liked by at least 40-45%. With Comey only having an approval rating of 17% he’s the Schrödinger’s Cat of effectiveness: either grossly incompetent or extremely competent. And the InfoMullet believes given his previous career gross incompetence is a hard case to make. (3) Indeed despite the common narrative that Comey’s handling of investigations angered ‘law enforcement’, the rank and file agents of the FBI appear to have a different view. As communicated through the Associations of current and retired FBI Agents:
“While agents and other FBI personnel clearly have divergent viewpoints on Comey’s handling of particular investigations, most believed the director always acted in the best interests of the FBI, especially in trying to make sure politics didn’t interfere with the bureau’s investigations, O’Connor said.
“They believe in the guy, they follow his leadership,” he said, “and they knew that when Director Comey told them something, that it was accurate, Constitutional and apolitical.”… “My friends who are on duty have been texting me and they are appalled,” said Savage, a former FBI special agent who retired in 2011 after a long career in the criminal division. “People were upset about losing him, and how he was informed. That’s appalling to our membership. He was a well-respected, well-liked director.” (4)
If the FBI personnel were upset and stunned, the WH Press Secretary was dazed and confused. The firing was so abrupt that Sean Spicer was at a loss of what to say to reporters on Tuesday night, and what resulted was a scene sure to be pilloried by SNL and reminiscent of Monty Python:
After Spicer spent several minutes hidden in the bushes behind these sets, Janet Montesi, an executive assistant in the press office, emerged and told reporters that Spicer would answer some questions, as long as he was not filmed doing so. Spicer then emerged.
“Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,” he ordered. “We’ll take care of this… Can you just turn that light off?”
Spicer got his wish and was soon standing in near darkness between two tall hedges, with more than a dozen reporters closely gathered around him. For 10 minutes, he responded to a flurry of questions, vacillating between light-hearted asides and clear frustration with getting the same questions over and over again. (5)
Less humorous is the stuttering answers Spicer gave as to the timeline of how and when the decision to fire Comey came about. According to Spicer, this had nothing to do with Trump. The incoming Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein independently began a probe into Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation, and wrote a letter recommending Trump fire Clinton. There was never any White House involvement until President Trump received the letter. A reluctant Trump only acted on the information to fire Comey, despite his longstanding praise of the Director, because of the strong resume of Rosentein as a tough prosecutor. (5) A story about as credible as the announcement of a successful missile launch by North Korea.
The White House then dutifully released supporting propaganda, the summary of Rosenstein’s probe, as well as the Attorney General’s concurrence and President Trump’s pink slip. Rosenstein’s probe, which can be found here – reads like a bad English 101 essay. A paper padded with as many quotes as possible to leave as little room for analysis. (6) The letter tries to make it look like an independent Department of Justice heard the Democratic complaints, took an independent look, and graciously came to the sober independent conclusion that Comey needed to go.
The problem with all of this explanation – is that none of it now appears to be true. President Trump went on NBC to personally address the situation and “speaking to NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump said he’d planned to fire James Comey “regardless” of whether the Department of Justice recommended it, undermining the claims made by his spokesman, vice president and every other senior aide to the contrary.” (7)
Apparently Trump was planning to fire Comey all along deftly providing an even weaker case than the one hastily scrambled together on Tuesday. Of course the elephant-on-his-back is the widespread belief that this has nothing to do with Clinton, or the lack of support Comey has, and everything to do with the ongoing FBI investigation into Trump’s 2016 Presidential Campaign staffer’s contacts with Russia. Indeed one of the first acts of the new Acting FBI Director McCabe was to defiantly make that point clear:
“Earlier in the day, the acting FBI director contradicted the president and his spokespeople, testifying in the Senate that the investigation into Russian contacts with Trump’s campaign is “highly significant” — though Trump has called for the probe to end immediately and labeled it a taxpayer-funded “charade.” Trump’s spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in turn, stood at the podium in the White House briefing room and contradicted the acting FBI director, who testified that Comey was well-regarded in the bureau, citing “countless” agents who she said had complained to her about his performance.” (7)
The InfoMullet, who is typically dismissive of grand unifying conspiracy theories is now warming to the “Russian-connection.” What was looking like the Benghazi of the Democratic party – a conspiracy theory blown out of proportion and with expectations set so high for heads-to-be-delivered it can’t possibly be met, is now looking more credible. And not because of any new evidence of causal connection. But mainly because the guy being investigated just fired the guy investigating him. That’s correlation not causation, and it’s aggravating to feel that way but hard to ignore. Thanks Trump.
For President Trump now joins an elite cadre of Presidents. Only President Bill Clinton, who also fired his own FBI Director and President Nixon who fired his own Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General have canned their own top law enforcement officials. Considering the other two as precedents, it should be clear legal sailing ahead for the President. It’s hard to think of a worse move to take if Trump wanted the Russian investigation to go away. By firing Comey Trump has guaranteed that forever more in all American histories to be written the words Trump, Comey and investigation into Russian interference of the US elections will be in close proximity. History may be written by the victors, but not all victors are good writers.
The larger context of the firing can be placed in the rotating möbius strip of tribal partisanship, where we cannot tell where one party ends and the other takes up. Too often Democrats and Republicans are being caught in the ideological dressing room changing from boxers to briefs: flipping on filibusters, swapping stances on supreme court nominees, justifying each action with a version of they did it first. Hearings will be called, a fight for a Special Prosecutor will be had. Bt no one comes out looking good, except, for Comey.
Indeed, as far as the InfoMullet can discern, the only evidence that Comey has acted improperly are quotes from political partisans unhappy with his actions from a political perspective. And there is not a single citation of a violation of a rule, procedure, policy or misconduct. Why did Comey speak at all? Why not just remain silent, which is the traditional role of the FBI. In a closely fought political campaign silence is just as loud as speaking: Democrats would’ve been screaming for him to clear Clinton alongside Republicans shouting that he was covering up something for Clinton. When partisan thinking is the norm, clear thinking looks like conspiracy. And in choosing to walk his own path – rather than choosing a side – Comey isolated himself without the political support that he, and the FBI, needed to survive eventually even turning some in that agency against his actions prior to his firing. (8)
The greatest sin of Comey wasn’t his unprecedented actions – but that he spoke truth in unprecedented times. Both political parties nominated tremendously flawed emperors and demanded we did not see they were naked. In the fairy-tale, the child’s cry pointing this out is taken up by others and we all learn a valuable lesson. But today, the tribes are just as likely to shout: “Shut up! Clinton and Trump are fabulously dressed in great clothes! Fantastic clothes! Find that kid – and string him up!”
Perhaps Comey isn’t suited to be the FBI Director. After all, he only did try to stop the two most controversial legal decisions in our lifetime as well as be willing to boldly investigate the two most controversial political figures in our time. I’m sure there’s someone equally up to that task.
Perhaps this is the best outcome after all. Comey can build a base of support and comes back in 2020 to kick everyone’s ass. Batman style. He may not be the FBI Director Washington DC wants, but he’s clearly the child among emperors that Washington DC needs.
(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatch_Act_of_1939 The Hatch Act prohibits bribery of voters; intimidation of voters; and more importantly to this case bans partisan political activity of a federal employees such as joining a political campaign or running for office . It has never applied to a law enforcement official conducting an investigation, regardless of what Senator Reid says. And before someone adds a link in the comments yes I’ve read the op-ed by Richard Painter, President George W. Bush’s “Chief White House Lawyer on Ethics” on how the Hatch Act applied. Three things: 1) Painter was releasing a book and needed the publicity, 2) Painter’s job was vetting political appointees for ethics, he never prosecuted a case, let alone a Hatch Act case. 3) I feel pretty comfortable going up against a “Bush Ethics Lawyer” any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Bring it.