On Tuesday afternoon, President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, in a move that is truly shocking for several reasons.
First, the FBI director is a nonpartisan post serving for a 10-year term. Though the president has authority to fire him or her at any time, by norm and custom, presidents have kept their predecessors’ FBI directors in place, helping ensure some insulation for the FBI from politics. The only recent firing of an FBI director, in 1993, was carried out because of his alleged corruption and financial misdeeds.
Second, Comey’s dismissal is even more unusual because he confirmed in March that he is overseeing an investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign that touches on Trump’s campaign and associates. Trump’s firing of him quite obviously raises questions about whether the president is trying to impede this investigation.
Third, the Trump administration’s justification for firing Comey — that he was too critical on Hillary Clinton in the email case — is ludicrous on its face, considering that Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have a history of making the opposite argument.
Fourth, reporting from both the New York Times and Politico suggests that in fact Trump wanted Comey out due to anger over his handling of the Russia case (which the president has called a “hoax” and “fake news”), and merely asked the Justice Department to provide a pretext for the firing.
Fifth, the New York Times’s Matthew Rosenberg and Matt Apuzzo report that just days before he was fired, Comey “asked the Justice Department for a significant increase in resources for the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election.”
All this sure makes it look like the president has fired the FBI director because he was unhappy with an investigation into his inner circle. By doing this, Trump has thrown the independence and future of the top law enforcement institutions of the United States into serious question.
Democrats — even those deeply critical of how Comey handled the Clinton email case — have reacted with horror to this news, since Comey was clearly independent of Trump. In response, they are calling for an independent special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate Russia-related matters.
The Republican response has been more mixed. Several GOP senators did criticize Trump’s firing of Comey, but others — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — have appeared unmoved.
There are two ways a special prosecutor could be appointed — through the Justice Department (which means through Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, since Sessions recused himself), and through Congress. But so far, it’s unclear whether either will happen.
It’s also worth noting that by firing Comey, Trump has opened yet another front in his war with the so-called “deep state.” His administration has been plagued by damaging anonymous leaks from intelligence and law enforcement agencies already. Since Comey’s ouster throws the independence of the FBI and Justice Department into question, Trump has given many more employees potential motivation to leak further.