Do Democrats have a right to be mad about James Comey's ouster?
Many on the left hated the FBI director. But that doesn't mean they wanted him fired.
Many Democrats blame former FBI Director James Comey for throwing the election to President Trump, thanks to his ham-handed interference right before Election Day and his earlier public comments about Hillary Clinton's "extremely careless" use of a private email server while secretary of state.
Comey's not the only one they blame — Clinton has acknowledged her own mistakes, Bill Clinton messed things up by meeting with the attorney general for a short chat on an airplane, Anthony Weiner was a constant irritant and the proximate cause of Comey's October Surprise, and of course, Russia played at least some role in harming Clinton's chances through information warfare. But the fact that Comey ignored longstanding Justice Department rules to comment on the politically sensitive Clinton investigation during a presidential election, and that he kept mum about a similarly sensitive investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia, makes Comey's meddling particularly galling.
So when Trump fired Comey on Tuesday, citing advice from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — the latter of whom specifically cited Comey's mishandling of the Clinton investigation — Democrats found themselves in an awkward spot.
Trump apparently expected Democrats to cheer his decision to oust what he viewed as a common enemy. Michael "Lionel" William Lebron, a legal analyst for Kremlin-sponsored cable channel RT, had the same expectation. "Quick — who are his fans?" he asked right after the news broke. Everybody would applaud Comey's firing, including clapping Democrats, Lebron predicted, "because, after all, he's responsible for Trump winning. So everybody's elated."
That's not how it worked out.
Democrats, and a significant number of Republicans, were freaked out or at least "troubled" by the timing of the firing, so removed from any proportional offense. Hillary Clinton's campaign manager Robby Mook said on Twitter that he "was as disappointed and frustrated as anyone at how the email investigation was handled," but "this terrifies me." Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta ribbed Trump with a Watergate comparison: "Didn't you know you're supposed to wait til Saturday night to massacre people investigating you?" The Richard Nixon Presidential Library felt compelled to remind everyone that not even Nixon fired his FBI director.
About half an hour before announcing his decision, Trump informed a group of senators of his decision, and "White House officials believed it would be a 'win-win' because Republicans and Democrats alike have problems with the FBI director," Politico reports. When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer "told him he was making a big mistake," a "person familiar with the call" said, "Trump seemed 'taken aback.'" Schumer went on to suggest in a press conference that Trump was engaging in a Russia "cover-up." Trump being Trump, he hit back on Twitter.
Hitting the party out of power for your own hiring and firing decisions (see Flynn, Michael) is a confusing strategy in some ways — but it also has the nice advantage of making Democrats look like political opportunists. Just minutes after the news of Comey's firing broke, the White House sent out a page of negative press clippings about Comey, most of them criticizing his public comments about Clinton and her server. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the majority whip, had a particularly pithy formulation:
These things are both true. So how can Democrats both criticize Comey's actions and judgment regarding the Clinton investigation and decry Trump's firing of Comey for those same reasons as a "cover-up"? Well, first of all, nobody really believes that's why Trump fired Comey.
The subsequent reports that Trump had been planning the move for weeks and was waiting on a good excuse just solidified what most observers already believed.
Secondly, Comey is leading the FBI's investigation into any ties between Trump and the hostile country that interfered to his advantage in the presidential election. "One can be at once a critic of Comey and alarmed by what Trump has done and how he has done it," said The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol. Or as former Democratic staffer Jamison Foser puts it:
Democrats may not particularly like James Comey or think he exercised great judgment in regards to the Hillary Clinton email investigation. But whether you agree with him or not, there's little doubt that Comey felt beholden to nobody but himself and his FBI agents. This is the same reputed straight-shooter, after all, who dramatically refused to let the George W. Bush administration reauthorize a legally dubious and warrantless surveillance program, rushing to the hospital to prevent top Bush aides from trying to overrule him via the gravely ill attorney general, John Ashcroft.
That story is probably one of the big reasons Obama picked Comey, a lifelong Republican, to head the FBI. And it's why Democrats were, when push came to shove, happy that Comey was in the Trump Justice Department to say "no" when necessary to a president who won't take "no" for an answer often enough.