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Comey’s shock firing complicates Russia probe
Democratic lawmakers this week demanded a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate possible ties between Russia and President Donald Trump’s election campaign after Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, who had been overseeing the bureau’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Comey’s summary dismissal stunned much of Washington; Comey himself learned of his firing from a TV news bulletin while he was delivering a speech to agents in Los Angeles. The White House said Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had recommended Comey’s dismissal because of his handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton’s private email server last year. A memo prepared by Rosenstein, who took office two weeks ago, said Comey violated long-standing FBI policy when he held a news conference in July criticizing Clinton’s email practices, calling Comey’s act a “textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.” Trump said in Comey’s termination letter that the FBI needed new leadership to restore “public trust and confidence” in the agency, and referenced the Russia inquiry, thanking Comey for allegedly informing him, “on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”
Comey’s dismissal came as the FBI’s Russia probe appeared to be accelerating. Days before his firing, Comey had asked Rosenstein for a significant increase in funds and personnel for the investigation, according to congressional officials. This week, federal prosecutors issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
After Comey’s firing, Trump defended his decision, asserting that the former FBI director “wasn’t doing a good job” and accusing Democrats of hypocrisy because they had previously criticized Comey. But Democrats called the firing a thinly veiled attempt by Trump to derail the bureau’s Russia investigation. Using the Clinton probe to fire Comey “is laughable,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “What we have now really is a looming constitutional crisis that is deadly serious.”
What the editorials said
Comey “committed more than enough mistakes in the last year to be dismissed for cause,” said The Wall Street Journal. After ignoring protocol in his handling of the Clinton email investigation, Comey has repeatedly “dangled insinuations” about Trump and Russia in his testimony to Congress. “He is political in precisely the way we don’t want a leader of America’s premier law enforcement agency to behave.” Better that he was fired “now than never.”
Comey deserves criticism for the Clinton probe, but “that’s not the reason Trump fired him,” said The New York Times. Trump had “nothing but praise” for Comey when the FBI reopened the email investigation in the last days of the campaign, saying the director had “guts” and “did the right thing.” Rather, Comey was dismissed because he was “leading an active investigation that could bring down a president.” We are at a “perilous moment” in our nation’s history.
Congress must now “rise to the occasion,” said The Boston Globe. Trump’s nominee to replace Comey must receive a thorough vetting by the Senate, “not behind closed doors, but in full view of the public, rank-and-file FBI agents, and the president.” Lawmakers must put aside their partisan biases and stand up for the integrity of the FBI. “Anything less risks deepening what already looks like a travesty of justice.”
What the columnists said
“Virtually every major scandal in American politics” has been compared to Watergate, said David Greenberg in The Washington Post. None has rivaled Richard Nixon’s abuse of power—“until now.” Comey’s ouster recalls the “Saturday Night Massacre,” when Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, then abolished his office. While technically legal, it was a blatant attempt by Nixon “to snuff out an investigation that was closing in on him.” The parallels with Trump are striking—and terrifying.
Trump has once again “demonstrated his inability to tolerate any authority that lies beyond his control,” said Jonathan Chait in NYMag. He sees the federal government “as personally subordinate to himself, exactly like his business.” The question now is how far Republicans “will let him go before they stop him, or whether the midterm elections will give Democrats the chance.”
The truth is, Comey “should’ve been fired months ago,” said Ben Domenech in TheFederalist.com. From his interventions in the 2016 campaign to his grandstanding congressional appearances, the former director has repeatedly shown he “cares more about his personal image than the department he leads.” The FBI needs “a fresh start,” said John Yoo in FoxNews.com. Trump “made this tough decision for the good of the country, despite the heavy, and predictable, criticism it will bring.”
I hope that Republicans do the right thing and push for a special prosecutor, said Brian Beutler in New Republic.com. More likely, we are about to “tumble down one of two dark paths.” In one scenario, Trump attempts “to co-opt or weaponize the FBI” with a pliable new director. Agents resign en masse, leaks flood out, “then impeachment proceedings begin.” The other path? Republicans “continue to enable Trump’s assault on democracy and the rule of law,” while Democrats flail in fruitless protest. “And the nation’s slide into authoritarianism begins in earnest.”