Analysis: Timing, Reasons for Comey's Firing Raise Questions, But Trump's Next Move is What Matters

Posted: May 10, 2017 10:30 AM

President Trump has fired FBI Director James Comey, an intensely controversial figure whose high-profile investigations connected to the 2016 presidential campaign placed him in the middle of an unprecedented political storm. Depending on the news cycle, Comey has been both hailed and reviled by partisans on each side of the aisle -- enraging conservatives for his refusal to recommend indictments against Hillary Clinton and top aides for their criminal conduct in the infamous email scandal, and infuriating liberals by publicizing his decision to reopen the FBI's Clinton probe just days before the election.

Comey critics in both political camps have complained that he played an inappropriately outsized role in a heated campaign and applied legal and PR standards unevenly. Comey's defenders contend that Russia's efforts to harm Clinton and help Trump, coupled with Clinton's unquestionably reckless conduct and subsequent dishonesty, put him in an impossible position. I'm quite sympathetic to some of his detractors' arguments, but also largely concur with those who say that an election featuring two ethically-suspect nominees left him with few attractive choices. In my view, Comey seems like a good man and a serious professional who was confronted with a wild situation, made mistakes, but tried his best. President Trump evidently concluded that Comey's best was not good enough -- and setting aside certain complicating factors, a great number of liberals have indicated in recent months that they strongly agree.  A few thoughts:

(1) This is, by far, the most important consideration to keep in mind amid the hyperbolehyperventilating and hot takes -- via two non-conservatives:

This strikes me as exactly right.  The degree to which we should be alarmed by Trump's decision depends on what -- or, more specifically, who -- comes next.  If the president selects a new FBI Director with sterling professional credentials, an established reputation for independence, and strong cross-partisan support and respect, Comey's sacking isn't a problem.  If, however, Trump picks a politically-compromised figure against whom accusations of yes-man-ism might credibly stick, that would be much more concerning.  Especially in light of the today's complex, messy political climate, the White House must nominate somebody who is above reproach.  Senate Republicans must embrace their constitutional duties with due gravity and must not rubber-stamp an unworthy nominee.

(2) The president -- who, like many others, has been all over the map in his opinion of Comey -- reportedly made this decision in response to a recommendation from his new Deputy Attorney General, who produced a memo laying out a highly critical review of Comey's handling of the Clinton case.  Many of its points are persuasive, even as many of them ironically make a case that Comey treated Clinton unfairly last fall (I personally wonder if these were subconscious "make up calls" after giving her an unwarranted pass on a prosecution referral, which would have destroyed her campaign).  Somewhat surreally, many on the Left would surely agree with much the Trump administration's analysis.  But many Democrats are crying foul over what they see as a glaring example of an appearance of impropriety: Trump is dismissing the top law enforcement officer overseeing the Bureau's ongoing probe into Russia's interference and subterfuge during the 2016 US election -- which entails an investigative strand into Trumpworld.  The president himself is not a subject of the investigation, it must be noted, but people in his campaign's orbit seem to be.  With that in mind, Comey's termination must not be allowed impact the FBI's work on this front:

Up to this point, I've been satisfied that three concurrent investigations into the Russia matter is sufficient, despite the bipartisan dysfunction of the House effort.  In the event that any serious evidence should emerge indicating that last evening's dramatic development compromised the Justice Department's examination of the facts in any significant way, that would be an entirely unacceptable red flag.  An independent investigation would then become not only appropriate, but imperative.

(3) Firing an FBI Director is well within a president's powers, as Bill Clinton is certainly aware.  Immediately declaring this move as an authoritarian purge, or a "grotesque abuse," or a Russia cover-up conspiracy is premature and irresponsible. The timing seems rather odd (although we do know that Comey's own practices were under review, and he recently flubbed a piece of testimony before Congress), and possible motives at play will understandably raise suspicions.  But it's clear that James Comey had lost the confidence of major figures in both political parties, as well as most of the American people.  Yesterday's action was controversial and raises questions.  But to reiterate my first point above, the president's next decision will tell us much more about how we ought to feel about what just happened.