Personality politicking has been raging in this administration, and the latest casualty of Donald Trump’s ego is the FBI.
The firing of FBI Director James Comey by President Trump, was certainly legal, called for by many on both sides of the political aisle, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) (as recently as a few weeks earlier), and cannot be said to be unjustified. Mr. Comey, a highly respected former U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York and later Deputy Attorney General under President George W. Bush, became caught up in the most bizarre presidential election in memory. Unfortunately for this FBI chief, in a too public, too prosecutorial way, he incrementally enmeshed himself in a web of controversy from which he could not escape.
The last “hurrah” for Mr. Comey was giving misleading testimony to Congress, days before his termination, as to the number of e-mails from Hillary Clinton found on a laptop computer shared by her close aide Huma Abedin and to which her husband, disgraced New York ex-congressman Anthony Weiner, had access. The testimony was later corrected by other Bureau officials, but it was claimed to be (by Trump protagonists) one of the last 2 “straws” for the president. The other was Comey’s request to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for more resources to help investigate alleged connections between Trump, Trump’s campaign, Russia, and the election. These produced an increasingly common flash of public anger from Trump, followed by the peremptory removal of Comey from office, although Trump now claims the firing was long in the works.
Was it salutary for Comey to be replaced, regardless of Trump’s motivation? Yes, in this writer’s opinion. Although I still have the greatest respect and admiration for the former director, who comes from the same city where I lived for many years, and whom I had met in a professional capacity, his increasing political polarization and public statements regrettably damaged the reputation for independence, nurtured and cherished by the FBI since Watergate. Jim Comey would have made an outstanding U.S. Attorney General, but his years as a prosecutor seem to have made it hard for him to transition away from that role to one as head of our largest, most prestigious federal investigative agency.
This being said, the way in which President Trump went about removing Mr. Comey can best be described as tactless, tasteless and classless…a slap in the face of a dedicated public servant that angered almost everyone in the FBI, from rank and file agents and staff to Deputy Director McCabe, who took over the helm as interim chief. Trump’s claim that Comey had lost the backing of his people was soundly rejected by the FBI Agents Association, which put out a statement that Comey’s support inside the Bureau was “overwhelming”, and that his firing was a “gut punch” to the 35,000 sworn and civilian personnel of the FBI. Acting Director McCabe, in testimony to Congress, reiterated the political independence of the FBI, rebuffed the president’s stated rationale for firing Comey, and affirmed that all investigations, the existence of which he would not confirm nor deny, involving any Trump-Russia connections and the election, would move forward without interference. Trump’s comments likely energized the people working on any such cases, cementing their dedication to uncovering and making known all ascertained facts.
If Trump or any of his advisers thought that removing Comey would end ongoing investigations, the Trump camp was grossly mistaken. Clearly they would be ignoring the lessons of Watergate, where Nixon interfered with FBI probes. As the late noted philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” In my view, never try to make the Bureau your political pawn. Neither president nor attorney general can win such an encounter.
Having worked on cases with the FBI, I learned that every good agent develops contacts and sources in the press and sometimes with lawmakers. Try to interfere with their work and word of the obstruction gets quickly leaked. It’s unstoppable and untraceable because agents are quite adept at covering their tracks. In Watergate, when Nixon shut down the Bureau’s probe, former FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt, became “Deep Throat” and gave all that the Bureau had uncovered to Woodward and Bernstein, two then up-and-coming reporters for the Washington Post. As the Number Three Man in the FBI, Felt had access to every piece of information uncovered by investigators. The result was the voting of Articles of Impeachment against Nixon by the House Judiciary Committee, and his 1974 resignation from office.
Could President Trump have removed Director Comey in a better way? Certainly. With praise for his service, in a personal meeting and long before making it known to the press. Why neither Attorney General Sessions nor his deputy, Mr. Rosenstein, dissuaded the president from acting so rashly is anyone’s guess. It seems that courtesy and respect for others may be absent in this Justice Department. One thing is clear…the abrupt firing of Mr. Comey raised many suspicions about Mr. Trump in both parties, might result in legislation that creates a new special prosecutor’s office, and makes it impossible for the president to appoint an FBI Director over whom he will be able to have substantive influence. Another way to look at this mess is through the old proverb; “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”!
Featured image: DonkeyHotey (CC)