An ethics lawyer who served in George W. Bush’s White House is calling on Congress to investigate President Trump’s abrupt dismissal on Tuesday of FBI Director James Comey. Richard Painter tells Rolling Stone the surprise move is a clear-cut abuse of power.
“We cannot tolerate this – for the president to be firing people who are investigating him and his campaign and its collusion with the Russians,” Painter says. “It’s a lot worse than Watergate. Watergate was a third-rate burglary. It was purely domestic in nature. This situation involves Russian espionage, and we’ve got to find out who is collaborating.”
Trump removed Comey on Tuesday afternoon, acting, the president said in a statement, on the advice of both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Painter is not encouraged by Trump’s insistence that the decision was based on Sessions’ recommendation. “The attorney general was also part of the contacts made by the Trump campaign with Russia. The attorney general lied about that to the Senate at his confirmation hearing,” he says.
It’s unusual for an FBI director to be summarily fired the way Comey was. (He reportedly learned of his dismissal from a TV screen flashing news of it while addressing bureau employees in Los Angeles.) FBI directors typically serve a 10-year term, and Comey was only confirmed to his position in 2013.
Painter does not believe Trump had grounds for the firing. “The president has the right to do it – legally he can do it – but it’s an abuse of power. It’s what President Nixon did when he fired Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor, and Nixon had to go through three attorneys general to do it – he had to fire two attorneys general for refusing to fire Cox,” he says.
“This time around the attorney general is [involved] in it himself, and he went along with this and he may have encouraged it, so we have a clear abuse of power.”
Painter says that the next step, as it was during Watergate, is for Congress to act – and, possibly, to impeach. “That’s what Congress is there for,” he says. “I think this has reached the point where the House Judiciary Committee ought to start the process of looking at this presidency and whether there has been a sufficient abuse to justify removing the president.”
“I think they need to have a hearing. That’s what the House Judiciary Committee did with Nixon, and I think we’ve reached more than enough incriminating evidence [of] abuse of power that the House Judiciary Committee ought to start the process,” he says.
Whether House Republicans will do so is another question. Most, like House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz, have shown little appetite for investigating the president. On Tuesday, Chaffetz’s Democratic counterpart on the committee, Elijah Cummings, called for immediate hearings to begin and blasted his Republican colleagues, saying in a statement, “There is now a crisis of confidence at the Justice Department, and President Trump is not being held accountable because House Republicans refuse to work with us to do do job.”
But at least one GOP member has spoken up: Rep. Justin Amash said on Twitter that his staff was reviewing legislation to establish an independent commission on Russia.
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“We’ll see what happens,” Painter says. “I don’t think the voters are going to tolerate it. I think that Republicans in Congress need to think about whether they want to go down with the ship, with Trump, participating in a White House cover-up here, or whether they want to restrain abuse of power by the president.”
Watch Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meet with Russian Foreign Minister the day after James Comey’s firing.