Danielle McLaughlin: Trump didn't just throw the FBI boss under a bus
OPINION: This week, the President fired FBI Director James Comey. It was an historic decision, the likes of which has never been seen before (with the exception of Bill Clinton, who terminated an FBI director embroiled in fraud allegations).
Now, anyone paying attention to American politics with concerns about the president's competence or honesty could be forgiven for experiencing outrage fatigue. But this might not be garden variety trumpery. Comey, of course, was the man leading a wide-ranging probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
This probe includes people associated with the Trump campaign, transition and administration, most notably General Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security advisor, who lied about his contacts with Russian agents and hid payments from foreign governments that he should have disclosed.
The firing came as the Trump-Russia investigation was reportedly intensifying. Comey had recently increased from weekly briefings on the probe to daily briefings. This week, a senate committee undertaking its own investigation asked the US Treasury for detailed financial information on transactions of Trump, his family, and his associates. Also this week, a prosecutor in Virginia issued grand jury subpoenas related to its investigation of Flynn.
The rationale provided by the White House during the first 48 hours after the news broke was that Comey was fired because Trump had lost faith in him after Comey bungled the Clinton investigation.
The leaders of the Department of Justice – the attorney general and deputy attorney general – had apparently made the recommendation because of Comey's public statements regarding the existence of the Clinton investigation, and because he decided not to move forward with prosecuting her.
It was a head scratcher from the get-go. As to the first point, Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said in 2016 that it was Comey's "duty" to publicise certain aspects of the Clinton investigation, including most notably an October 28, 2016 to congress (which was quickly leaked by Republican Jason Chaffetz) explaining that the Clinton investigation was not closed, but ongoing, due to the discovery of possible additional emails on a laptop owned by Anthony Wiener, the husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
hat letter, sent 11 days before the election, is quantifiably verifiable as a significant factor in Clinton's November 8 loss.
In 2016, I was the odd TV pundit out in one way relevant to this week's drama.
Hillary Clinton, whom I supported, took a beating from the FBI in an unusually public way. And yet, not once did I suggest that the FBI director should be fired for his handling of the Clinton email investigation.
Particularly with respect to the October 28 letter, Comey was faced with a Sophie's choice: reveal that new emails had been found and jeopardise Clinton's chances, or sit on the revelation and then be accused of partisanship if she won the election and the email trove subsequently came to light.
My view had always been that criticising the actions of a non-partisan arm of government that you don't like as "partisan" is a slippery slope that undermines the institutions of democracy.
For a multitude of reasons, the rationale given by the White House for Comey's termination belied belief.
First, it contradicted not only what the attorney general said in 2016, but Donald Trump's many public statements about his confidence in Comey.
Trump called Comey's pre-election letter "gutsy", suggesting that he had resuscitated his reputation after not pressing charges against Clinton in the summer of 2016.
In April of this year, Trump told a reporter that while Comey was "very good" to Clinton, he had confidence in the Director. Perhaps because of Trump's public statements, the first explanation for Comey's firing was that the President took action based on a recommendation.
But just days later, Trump admitted on camera to NBC that in fact it was his decision alone to fire Comey, regardless of what the Justice Department suggested.
It now seems clear that Trump, who called Comey a "showboat" and a "grandstander", wanted to fire the director one way or another, so asked the Justice Department to create a paper trail for cover.
When pressed, Trump threw his Justice Department and spokespeople – who had maintained the cover story for two days – under the bus.
Reporting based on extensive White House sources indicates Trump actually fired Comey because he was becoming increasingly enraged with the Russia investigation, at times yelling at television coverage of the probe, and complaining that no-one was defending him.
Reportedly, Trump had sought assurances of loyalty from Comey, which Comey rightly refused to give.
Trump had also asked for a preview of senate testimony that Comey was to give on the Clinton email and Russia investigations, and Comey refused that, too.
These are, of course, categorical reasons not to fire the FBI director – a president's anger that the FBI director wouldn't swear fealty to him, or a president's attempt to get in the way of an investigation of his associates, and possibly him.
At the beginning of this week, it seemed reasonable, if tenuous, to argue that this was a decisive act grounded in a genuine concern about Comey's performance that was just rolled out awkwardly by the president, independent of the escalation of the Russia investigation.
But with a cover story made, then blown, it increasingly looks like a desperate act of self-preservation.
Did the president decide, with full knowledge of how bad it would look, that keeping Comey at the head of the Russia probe was worse than the fallout from firing him?
Or did the President just lack the foresight and self-control to understand that giving in to his impulse and firing the man who might be investigating him looks like consciousness of guilt?
Only time will tell.
Follow Danielle on Twitter: @MsDMcLaughlin
- Sunday Star Times