The firing of James Comey as the Director of the FBI has brought forth a firestorm of protests by Democrats who think that this decision represents a serious attack on the rule of law and a possible repetition of the Watergate scandals that brought down President Richard Nixon. The implicit assumption behind these denunciations that we are on the verge of a second Watergate scandal that could, and should, bring down the Trump administration. The level of hysteria is well captured in the remarks of Jeff Toobin, the CNN analyst, who regards this as a mortal threat to democratic institutions and values in the United States.
I fully understand why many Democrats are in constant warfare with the Trump administration. But it is equally important for them to understand that in this case there are two sides to the story, and that the best attitude on this fast-breaking issue is to wait and see how events evolve before reaching any conclusion about the matter. Here are just two points of caution.
First, it is commonly asserted that President Trump engineered the dismissal of Comey from that position. But that conclusion goes in the face of a firm denial that the White House had requested that Comey’s position in the FBI be reviewed, let alone that he be ousted. The key document in this case was the memorandum prepared by Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein, who took the lead on this matter given that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is barred from dealing with the investigation of any possible efforts of the Russians, alone or in cooperation with members of the Trump team, to influence the outcome of the Presidential election this past November.
If that statement is a lie, then it highly damning. But there is no reason to think that it is. Rosenstein is a respected operator within the DOJ who was confirmed for his position by a lopsided 94-6 vote on April 25. It makes perfectly good sense to see why the decision to remove Comey would wait until his confirmation, given that AG Sessions is not in a position to take that decision. It takes some time to review the matter, and to draft a delicate memo that deals with this issue. There are explanations for delay that are not nefarious under the circumstances. And, to the other side of the point, the FBI investigation has been going on for some months now, as have other independent investigations outside of government, none of which have turned up anything of note that suggests any improper conduct on the part of the Trump administration that is worth covering up. My best guess is that there is nothing that will turn up from these investigations, so that it is in the interests of the Trump administration to keep the investigation moving as rapidly as possible.
Nor is there any evidence that anyone has ordered the investigation to stop. In fact, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders has stated publicly that the White House wants the FBI to complete the investigation promptly. There is a far cry from the stonewalling of Richard Nixon after it was known that the White House tapes contained damning information about the role of the White House in the Watergate break-in.
Second, it is said that the letter that Rosenstein wrote was preposterous on its face because it referred back to Comey’s conduct in the investigation of the Hillary Clinton email server, most notably his public statements in July 2016, which provoked great outrage among the Democrats who thought that he was throwing the election to Donald Trump. The current democratic position is that these events are long dead and those are at best a pretext for thwarting the ongoing investigation. But the Rosenstein memo was crafted in a way that was alert to just this possibility. It noted that Comey had continued to take the view that it was appropriate for him to be a public conscience of government, when the FBI Director role is circumscribed that so that it reports to the DOJ officials who make the ultimate decisions on prosecution and publicity. The want of any recognition that his past actions had created so much unnecessary turmoil reflects ill on his service in office, going forward. There were ample grounds for his dismissal in July, 2016, and, nothing that Comey has done since that time gives any reason to think that he would change his approach to leading the FBI. Morale is critical in these organizations, which is why Comey had to go.
At this point, there is a litmus test which will give some clue as to whether the firing was legitimate or whether it was an organized plot to suppress and investigation that could turn up information that is harmful to Trump. Who will he nominate for the position as the next head of the FBI? My guess is that it will be a career official of high rank inside the department, possibly the current deputy director Andrew McCabe who taking over the position, and who is widely respected inside the FBI. For the moment, the attacks on the decision look over the top, and talk of impeachment utterly irresponsible in the total absence of any evidence of concealment of evidence on possible connections between the Trump people and the Russians. The story could evolve quickly in either direction, but for the moment there is more shouting that deliberation. Wait and see.