WASHINGTON, May 10, (Agencies): With his shocking dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, Donald Trump is propelling the presidency into rarely traversed territory. His surprise announcement Tuesday fl outs decades of presidential deference to the nation’s top law enforcement agency and its independence.
It earns Trump the dubious distinction of being the first president since Richard Nixon to fire the official overseeing an investigation involving the commander in chief. And it cements a clear pattern of a man willing to challenge — in dramatic fashion — the institutions created to hold the president accountable.
“That’s why this is unprecedented,” said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian. “He’s showed signs of not having a great deal of respect for the system by which this investigation has been operating.” Sen. Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican who is overseeing one of the congressional investigations into Russia’s election interference, said: “I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Comey’s termination.” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he’d spent hours trying to find “an acceptable rationale” for Trump’s decision.
“I just can’t do it,” he said. Trump attained his White House goal after a decades-long career in business during which he was accountable to few people other than himself. Thus, he has chafed at the constitutionally mandated constraints on the presidency. Within days of taking the oath of office, he suddenly fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates — a career Justice Department official — after she refused to defend the White House’s controversial travel and immigration ban. When the federal courts blocked that measure as well, Trump aggressively castigated individual judges as political actors and challenged the court’s role in curbing a president’s policies.
No matter which president originally appoints them — Comey was tapped by Barack Obama in 2013 — almost all FBI directors are allowed to serve out their full 10-year terms under successor commanders in chief. Bill Clinton is the only other president to fire an FBI chief, amid questions about the director’s use of FBI aircraft for personal purposes.
The Trump White House cited Comey’s handling of last year’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices as the cause for the firing, and, to be sure, Comey left himself vulnerable. He was widely criticized for heavyhanded and high-profile decisions in the case, particularly when he sent a letter to Congress 10 days before the election saying the bureau was looking at new information related to the inquiry. He said at the time that the new information related to emails found on a laptop belonging to the husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin, the disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner.
At the time, Trump praised Comey for having “guts” and doing “the right thing,” statements that complicate his assertion that now, seven months later, Comey’s decisions warranted firing. Trump’s announcement came as Comey was again facing criticism, this time for telling congressional lawmakers that Abedin had forwarded “hundreds or thousands” of emails to the laptop. On Tuesday, hours before Trump fired Comey, the FBI told lawmakers that the director was wrong, and Abedin had forwarded only a “small number” of emails.
Although Democrats blame Comey for Clinton’s loss, they are unlikely to accept Trump’s explanation for the firing. The president has repeatedly dismissed Comey’s Russia investigation — as well as the congressional inquiries — as a “hoax.” He’s also insisted that he is not personally under investigation — asserting Tuesday that Comey told him three times that he was not a target — though the FBI has stated unequivocally that the president’s campaign and his associates are facing scrutiny. “This is Nixonian,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. Jimmy Gurule, a former assistant attorney general who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, said Trump’s decision “threatens our democracy and undermines the integrity of the FBI investigation.”
Gurule is now a law professor at the University of Notre Dame. Meanwhile, the newly appointed second-in-command at the U.S. Justice Department faced a weighty task just two weeks after taking office – writing the rationale for firing Comey. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein argued the case for Comey’s sacking in a three-page memo to Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday. Trump acted swiftly to dismiss the director later that day. Rosenstein cited Comey’s controversial public statements about the bureau’s investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. “It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do,” Rosenstein wrote of Comey’s public comments.
Spokespeople for the Department of Justice and the FBI did not return calls seeking comment late Tuesday. Comey’s firing will likely be seen as further evidence of Washington’s hyper- partisan upheaval. Rosenstein has drawn fire from Democrats who allege political motives in the White House decision to dismiss Comey – and particularly, its timing. “Why did it happen today?” asked Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York.
“We know the FBI has been looking into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians … Were those investigations getting too close to home for the President?” The rationale for canning Comey, however, came from a 26-year Justice Department veteran who is widely viewed by his peers and many lawmakers as uncommonly nonpartisan. Named as Maryland’s top prosecutor by President George W. Bush, Rosenstein stayed in office through the Obama administration. Rosenstein was the longest-serving U.S. attorney when he was nominated by Trump last January.
When he was confirmed by the Senate, he enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support – a 94-to-6 vote – despite the deeply divided culture of today’s Washington. Bonnie Greenberg, a federal prosecutor in Maryland told Reuters in March that Rosenstein was admired as a rare career prosecutor who could insulate himself from political pressure. “He only does something if he thinks it’s right,” said Greenberg, who worked with Rosenstein for 11 years. Many in the Justice Department saw Rosenstein’s appointment as a counterbalance to the extreme partisanship surrounding accusations of Russian interference in last year’s election. And he was immediately swept into that fray.