Let's be clear, because clarity is essential at moments such as this:
Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey Tuesday not because of Comey's incompetence, but in hopes of ending the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in our election and into possible collusion with Russia by members of Trump's campaign.
Trump wanted that investigation stopped in its tracks. He acted to do so. Multiple news outlets have all reported the same basic narrative. A week ago, an angry Trump put out the word to Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he wanted Comey fired, and Trump demanded that he be given a rationale, any rationale, that would allow him to do so.
"He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said."
In the Wall Street Journal version, the Trump White House "wanted Mr. Comey to 'say those three little words: 'There's no ties.'' When Comey did not say those words, his fate was sealed.
But of course, we already knew all that, straight from the horse's mouth. This tweet came less than 24 hours before Comey's firing, and it goes directly to presidential motive.
"When will this taxpayer-funded charade end?"
There is no defending that action. Presidents do get to fire and hire FBI directors; they do not get to try to end investigations that might bring their own actions under scrutiny. That's not the way we do things here in these United States of America, at least not so far. And again, the intent is clear. As Trump spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders lectured us last night, with Comey's removal it is now "time to move on" from the Russia probe.
I do not think so.
When Russia's role is fully investigated and we know as much as possible about what happened, that will be the time to move on. Instead of putting the issue behind us, Trump's blatant interference has pushed this investigation to the very top of the national agenda. I don't know whether Trump and his associates played any role in Russia's interference. Despite growing circumstantial evidence, I still tend to doubt it.
But I also know that Trump's behavior is not that of a man confident of exoneration. It has a unseemly whiff of desperation to it, a sense of panic.
It is worth noting that just a few hours before Trump fired Comey, news broke that grand-jury subpoenas had been issued in an investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a close Trump associate and a man whose own unreported ties to Russia may eventually put him behind bars.
That desperation is reflected even in Trump's letter to Comey removing him from office. (The president lacked the grace to do the deed in person or even by the phone. Comey learned of his firing from news accounts while he was speaking to FBI employees in Los Angeles.)
In that letter, Trump tells Comey that “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.” Among other things, the fact that Trump demanded assurances three separate times that he was not under investigation says a lot about his nervous state of mind.
However, the statement itself is probably true, even if it doesn't mean what Trump wants it to mean. At this point, the FBI is investigating an event, not a person or persons. It is running a counterintelligence probe trying to understand how and why Russia was able to interfere so successfully into our election process on Trump's behalf. As part of that investigation, it naturally wants to know whether any American citizens assisted Russia in that effort.
In a statement last week to Congress -- the statement that reportedly pushed Trump to new heights of anger and frustration -- Comey laid it out plainly: The FBI is investigating "the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts."
"As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed."
We should also deal with the official pretense for firing Comey. As part of the firing announcement, the White House released a letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in which Rosenstein recommends Comey's removal on grounds that he botched the handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. The letter does not take issue with Comey's decision not to prosecute, and instead focuses on Comey's decision to make his deliberations so public, in violation of longstanding precedent.
"We do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation," Rosenstein writes. "Derogatory information sometimes is disclosed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it gratuitously. ...It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do."
All of that is true. However, the idea that Trump has fired Comey because nine months ago he released derogatory information about Clinton is literally unbelievable. If you pretend to believe that, you fool no one but yourself, even though an alarming number of Americans will do so.
And oh yeah, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who gave Trump the excuse that he wanted to fire Comey? He is also the man in charge of the Russia probe.
And if that doesn't set off alarm bells, take a look at who Fox News (echoed by the Washington Times) are touting as potential replacements for Comey:
Clockwise from top left, that's Ray Kelly, former New York City police commissioner, who had earlier endorsed Trump's proposed Muslim ban; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Trump sycophant extraordinaire; the hapless if Benghazi-addled Trey Gowdy; and the bizarre David Clarke, Milwaukee County sheriff.
So you might want to contact your senators and congressmen to let them know how you feel about all this. This is a moment that matters.
SEN. DAVID PERDUE:
Contact by email at https://www.perdue.senate.gov/connect/email
Contact by telephone at (404) 865-0087 or (202) 224-3521.
SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON:
Contact by email at https://www.isakson.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/email-me
Contact by telephone at (202) 224-3643 or (770) 661-0999.
About the Author
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com