What you heard:
President Trump firing James Comey is POTUS’s “Watergate Moment” ™
What it is:
James Comey served as FBI Director from September of 2013 until yesterday. Before his… storied… tenure as Director, he had various roles in the US Justice Department and did a stint in the private sector as General Counsel at Lockheed Martin and Bridgewater Associates, plus a quick few months as a Senior Research Scholar at Columbia.
As FBI Director, Comey was charged with investigating both Hillary Clinton’s use of an private email server and the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. 2016 was a doozy, amirite? He sent the notorious “Clinton letter” in October of 2016, widely believed to have cost Clinton the election. This abuse of office is, ironically, the stated reason for his firing by the Trump administration.
We’ll get more into Watergate later, but the down and dirty is this: it’s the political scandal that started with a break-in at the Democratic National Committee (the 70s version of, say, hacking into someone’s emails), saw the Nixon administration attempt to cover up its involvement in the crime, and ended with the resignation of a President.
What it means:
The administration is going to sell you the line that Comey was fired because of his inappropriate conduct in regard to the Clinton letter. While Comey certainly deserved to be fired, claiming this is the reason is suspect and not likely to stand up to scrutiny.
To begin with, it was Republican members of Congress who initially leaked the letter and praised Comey for sending it. It was the Trump campaign who literally sold “Lock Her Up” merchandise on its website. It was Trump himself who, immediately after the Comey letter, said “I have great respect for the fact that the FBI and the DOJ are now willing to have the courage to right the horrible mistake they made.” Horrible mistake being, I imagine, declaring Clinton did nothing wrong six months previous, but who knows with this fucking guy.
Then, there’s the timing of Comey’s firing. If Trump had such an issue with the Director’s actions (which would be a shift from his October jubilation), why not fire him on January 20? Or, hell, January 22? I’ll even give him a few days to recover from that *massive* inauguration. It makes far more sense that recent hearings on the campaign’s ties to Russia were making the President uneasy (maybe even yell-at-the-TV mad, as Politico reports), and he was looking for a way to slow down the investigation.
Remember, Comey recently told Congress “the FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.” Then, on Monday, Sally Yates testified that she had warned the Trump administration that then-National Security Advisor could be compromised by the Russians, a warning the administration ignored until the public found out about it. Comey was also scheduled to testify on Trump-Russia ties in front of the Senate tomorrow. (As of now, looks like this is still on).
Finally, the Trump administration has no clear plan for succession or transition at the FBI. If they are, indeed, firing Comey over his inappropriate October letter, they have had six months to identify, vet, and interview candidates. It seems nonsensical to fire your FBI Director in order to bring propriety back to the organization, but then have no plan how to restore that order. Also, since when has Trump cared about respect for any office? The man has no regard for the office he holds or the important roles in the Administration.
What could happen:
Who even knows at this point? We have a President and administration willing to flout precedent and maybe even laws. We have a GOP Congress unwilling so far to put “good of the nation” ahead of “tax cuts for the rich”. I honestly don’t know where that line is anymore, and I wonder if they even do either.
Watergate comparisons are interesting, but not quite the same. The “Saturday Night Massacre” that everyone keeps referring to is when Nixon ordered special prosecutor Archibald Cox fired, and subsequently the AG and Deputy AG both resigned in protest. The Trump-Russia case doesn’t have a special prosecutor – yet, anyways; that’s a step taken after the AG finds reason to believe an independent investigator is warranted. Comey was the FBI Director, so while he was in charge of the Trump-Russia case, it wasn’t his sole responsibility. So do I think this firing is going to bring down the President? Nah. Do I think it’s the next step in down a path that could lead to the resignation of the President? Totally possible.
More likely, I think, if the GOP Congress decides it wants to be remembered with a sliver of decency, is the creation of an independent investigation into Trump-Russia ties. Clearly the House hasn’t been able to handle the matter (see: Devin Nunes), and the Senate investigation is moving at a snail’s pace – plus, it’s becoming increasingly unbelievable that either of those legislative bodies is capable of doing anything nonpolitically. Already House members and Senators are calling for an independent investigation, and I am more optimistic than usual that it may happen.
Senator Angus King (I-ME) has even suggested Comey lead the independent investigation. What a time to be alive.