Seemingly taking a page from President Richard Nixon, President Donald Trump on Tuesday fired FBI Director James Comey, who had been overseeing the investigation of ties between Russia and people close to Trump.
Two points: First, this is not normal. And second, there can be no question now about the need for a special prosecutor to look into Russian ties to the Trump campaign.
Trump released a package of memos indicating that he dumped Comey over his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, a claim that strains reason. In the past, the president had praised Comey, saying “it took a lot of guts” for him to raise new questions about Clinton in the campaign’s October home stretch. Clinton has blamed Comey for her loss.
Adding to the confusion, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommended Comey’s firing, even though Sessions recused himself from matters related to the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
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Sessions based his recommendation on a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who has spent his career in the U.S. Justice Department and said Comey had lost the trust of the agency.
“Almost everyone agrees,” Rosenstein wrote, “that the director made serious mistakes.”
A president can fire an FBI director. It has happened before. But FBI directors are appointed for 10-year terms to insulate them from politics. They should not be fired for anything less than gross incompetence or malfeasance. And they certainly should not be dumped by a president whose aides are the focus of an investigation that cuts to the core of our democracy.
Comey’s firing, which he learned about from TV news reports while delivering a speech to Los Angeles employees, was unceremonious and carried a whiff of authoritarianism. It harkens to the dark Nixon Administration days in October 1973 when the president fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox looking into the Watergate break-in and cover-up in what came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
This Editorial Board was among the critics of Comey’s handling of the Clinton’s email investigation. But the timing of Trump’s action raises deeply troubling questions.
Why fire Comey now? Why was Sessions involved? What will come of the Russian investigation?
Is Trump trying to protect himself and his friends and cronies from criminal charges? Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, in devastating testimony this week, said that she warned high-ranking Trump officials about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s connections to Russians. Was this a ruse to deflect from that?
Or was something darker at work? On Twitter this week, Trump claimed Comey was “the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton.” Is the administration now gunning for Clinton, never mind that she’s a private citizen?
No matter what answers eventually emerge, doubt will cloud them, unless a special prosecutor can restore some semblance of justice. Given Sessions’ recusal, Rosenstein now must summon the will to appoint one, if he cares at all about his department’s – and this government’s – credibility.