The Totally Deserved But Deeply Troubling Firing of James Comey

FBI director's sudden, unexpected removal by President Trump could backfire on the administration

Trump shakes hands with James Comey days after his inauguration. Credit: Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty

The most divisive federal law enforcement official in the country – FBI Director James Comey – was fired by President Trump Tuesday. In a letter dated May 9th, Trump informed Comey that he was "hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately."

Comey's sudden, unexpected removal provokes cognitive dissonance.

On one hand, the FBI director plainly deserved to lose his post. His rogue conduct in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election may have done more to sway the outcome than even Russia's malicious hacking campaign.

On the other, Comey has since flashed independence, overseeing the bureau's counterintelligence investigation into that hacking – including probing potentially criminal ties between Trump associates and Russian agents. Seen through this lens, the firing of Comey looks less like an attempt to restore "public trust and confidence" in the FBI, as Trump wrote in his letter – and more like obstruction of justice.

Comey's firing offenses were laid out in a separate letter by the Trump administration's new deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. In Rosenstein's telling, Comey broke the DOJ's chain of command – effectively moving to "supplant federal prosecutors and assume command" of the department – when he staged a press conference last July, announcing he would not recommend prosecution of Hillary Clinton over her "extremely careless" handling of classified information. "The director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as though it were a closing argument, but without a trial," Rosenstein wrote. "It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do."

Comey then doubled down on his misconduct when announced, in his infamous October 28th letter, that he was re-opening his investigation into Clinton's emails. That move, which broke long-standing DOJ protocol to not publicize investigations that could influence national elections, and the fallout from Comey's October surprise, may have cost Clinton the White House. "The way the Director handled the conclusion of the email investigation was wrong," Rosenstein concluded, adding, "Having refused to admit his errors, the Director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions," and should be replaced.

This set of facts is objectively true. Comey's reckless conduct violated the norms of the Justice Department and may have deformed U.S. history. But this set of facts has also been true from Day 1 of the Trump administration. What has changed since Trump greeted Comey with a warm handshake and a hug in their first meeting?

The FBI director has since acknowledged an investigation he did not share with voters before November – examining the Trump campaign's connections to Russia. In a rebuke to the president, the FBI director also called bullshit on Trump's baseless, red-herring claim that Trump Tower had been tapped by President Obama.

The timing of Comey's dismissal is fishy as hell: It comes on the heels of the Senate testimony of Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, whom Trump also fired – for political reasons. Yates has testified that she raised alarms, unheeded by the Trump White House, that Michael Flynn, the president's first national security adviser, could have been compromised by Moscow.

Trump himself has added to the fishiness of the firing – touting his own innocence, even as he lowered the boom on Comey. "While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation," Trump wrote, "I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau."

We are left with more question than answers – most of them circling back to Russia. Is Comey's firing an attempt by Trump to short-circuit a federal criminal investigation that could lead to his doorstep? Why did Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who has promised to recuse himself from matters relating to the Russian affair – intervene here, backing Comey's immediate removal? What precipitated the firing now, more than 100 days into Trump's term?

Early returns suggest that Comey's dismissal may backfire on the Trump administration. "I've spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey's firing," tweeted GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. "I just can't do it."

Indeed, the firing is uniting Republicans and Democrats in shock – and calls for a truly independent investigation of Trump ties to Russia. "We must have a special prosecutor," tweeted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Republican Sen. John McCain went further, tweeting that the firing "confirms need for select cmte to investigate #Russia's interference in 2016 election."

Watch Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and others react to FBI Director James Comey's firing.