President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey has created a political firestorm unlike any Washington has seen in years. But key questions about how it was done — and why — remain unanswered, as administration officials and even the president offered different explanations.
Here are some of the major questions on the table.
1) Why was Comey fired?
“He was not doing a good job. Very simple, he was not doing a good job.” That’s what Trump told reporters today during a photo op at the White House, while sitting next to Henry Kissinger.
But that was not the explanation spelled out in the memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that was cited by the White House on Tuesday as among the reasons for his immediate dismissal. Instead, Rosenstein focused on two separate actions by Comey last year: the FBI director’s public press statement wrapping up the Hillary Clinton email investigation (during which he editorialized that Clinton’s use of a private server was “extremely careless”) and his Oct. 28 letter informing Congress that the FBI was revisiting the issue based on the discovery of Clinton emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop.
Rosenstein concluded that those actions violated longstanding Justice Department practices and that “the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them.” Rosenstein said nothing about Comey’s overall competence as FBI director or how he has been doing his job. In her briefing Wednesday, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders went beyond the White House’s Tuesday announcement, acknowledging that there were “many” other factors that went into the president’s decision, including his handling of leak investigations that the White House had requested. She also said the president had “lost confidence” in Comey over a period of “several months.” Huckabee Sanders added: “He had essentially taken a stick of dynamite and thrown it into the Department of Justice by going around the chain of command.”
2) What was the rush?
Rosenstein’s memo, a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to Trump endorsing Rosenstein’s recommendation and Trump’s termination letter to Comey are all dated the same day, May 9. That seems like lightning speed for a decision of his magnitude. Sanders indicated Wednesday that Rosenstein and Sessions had actually been to the White House the day before, May 8, on other matters — and “they asked to see the president” so they could pass along their conclusions about Comey. The president then asked for it to be put in writing, she said.
Still, the factors cited by Rosenstein had been known for months, and Comey’s Oct. 28 letter was publicly praised by then-candidate Trump and then-Sen. Sessions at the time. (Sessions said on Fox Business that Comey had “no choice” but to write the letter.) Moreover, Comey’s conduct is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general that is nowhere close to reaching any findings. Why the White House did not wait for the inspector general’s review to be completed is unclear; at a minimum, had Inspector General Michael Horowitz criticized Comey’s conduct and recommended disciplinary action, it could have given Trump institutional cover to fire him.
3) What did the Russia investigation have to do with it?
This question looms over the entire controversy. Comey publicly confirmed on March 20 that, since last July, the FBI had been conducting a counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, including whether there was any collusion between the Kremlin and members of the Trump campaign.
There were multiple reports Wednesday that Comey had recently asked for more staff and resources for that probe. A Justice Department spokesman called those reports “totally false.” But Trump has made no secret of the fact that he is not a fan of the investigation, tweeting on May 8 — the day before he fired Comey — that the “Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax” and that investigations into the matter are a “taxpayer funded charade.”
The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 8, 2017
Moreover, there were other signs the probe is heating up and taking off in different directions. Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates — who was herself fired by Trump last January — testified this week that FBI agents had interviewed former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was also fired by Trump, and CNN reported this week that a federal grand jury had subpoenaed Flynn associates as part of the probe.
4) Is Trump a target of the investigation?
Trump, in his own letter to Comey firing him, nonetheless said he “greatly appreciated” that the director had informed him “on three separate occasions” that “I am not under investigation.” But if Comey did indeed say that, it seems highly curious he would tell the president that in private. In Comey’s public testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, he refused to answer whether the president was a target of the investigation. “I’m not going to comment on anyone in particular,” Comey responded when asked by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., if he had “ruled out” the president.
Blumenthal then followed up. “So potentially, the president of the United States could be a target of your ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian interference in our election, correct?”
“I just worry — I don’t want to answer that — that — that seems to be unfair speculation,” Comey replied. “We will follow the evidence, we’ll try and find as much as we can and we’ll follow the evidence wherever it leads.”
5) Who is running the FBI in the meantime?
Sessions and Rosenstein are now interviewing candidates to be “interim” director, and White House officials have begun trying to identify nominees to succeed Comey. (The nominee would have to be confirmed by the Senate for a 10-year term, unless, of course, he or she is fired by this or some later president.)
But in the meantime, the bureau is being run by the deputy (and now acting) director, Andrew McCabe. While a widely respected FBI veteran, McCabe also happened to be the top official who last year was in charge of the Clinton email investigation, prompting later criticism that he had a conflict of interest because his wife had run for the state legislature in Virginia (as a Democrat) and had benefited from campaign funds raised by the state’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, a major ally and longtime friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Moreover, according to Comey’s testimony, “everyone on my team agreed” with the decision to write the Oct. 28 letter to Congress, and that presumably would have included McCabe, his top deputy and the official in charge of the probe.
If that testimony is accurate, it means that — while firing Comey over his handling of the email probe — Trump, Sessions and Rosenstein left the bureau in the hands of a senior official who participated in the very conduct they fired the FBI director for engaging in.
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