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Comey chaos: President Trump’s decision to fire the FBI director and its backlash

President Trump has received intense criticism, and even calls for impeachment, surrounding his abrupt firing of FBI Director James B. Comey. Conflicting explanations for Comey’s dismissal and the appointment of a new special prosecutor have left many questioning the future of the administration.

Photo: AP/Carolyn Kaster (Courtesy of Google)

President Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey on Tuesday, May 9th, while the agency was investigating possible connections between the Trump administration and Russia.  The decision followed a private meeting the Monday before in Washington involving the President and several senior aides in which the President reportedly stated he was ready to make a decision regarding Comey.  While President Trump, the White House, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions all released short statements addressing Comey’s dismissal, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein provided the most in-depth explanation via a three-page memo addressed to Attorney General Jeff Sessions entitled “Restoring Public Confidence in the FBI.”  Rosenstein began the memo by recognizing the FBI as “our nation’s premier investigative agency,” but noted that “over the past year…the FBI’s reputation and credibility have suffered substantial damage, and it has affected the entire Department of Justice.”

After noting several other former Department officials from both sides of the political spectrum who shared his disapproval in director Comey’s actions, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein recognized the President’s authority “to remove an FBI director.”

Rosenstein continued to write that he “cannot defend the Director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails,” and went on to say he did not understand “his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken.”  Rosenstein also criticized Comey’s later decision to hold a press conference about the Clinton email investigation, stating “the Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial.” 

After noting several other former Department officials from both sides of the political spectrum who shared his disapproval in director Comey’s actions, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein recognized the President’s authority “to remove an FBI director.” He concluded the memo by reinforcing “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.”  While President Trump repeatedly pointed to Rosenstein’s memo as rationale for Comey’s firing, an article by the Washington Times reported Rosenstein actually threatened to resign as a result of the emerging narrative of him as the motivating factor for Comey’s dismissal.

As noted by the New York Times, following Comey’s firing, several Trump administration officials released statements that seemingly conflicted with one another. On May 9th, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein stated the reason for firing Comey was due to the director’s handling of the Clinton email investigation;  however, on Thursday, President Trump took things to a personal level, calling Comey a “showboat” who has left the F.B.I. “in turmoil.”

In addition, White House press secretary Sean Spicer stated the same day that the recommendation by the Department of Justice to fire Comey was made without any influence from the White House;  however, the next day, principal deputy White House press secretary Sarah Sanders stated the President had specifically requested a memo recommending Comey’s dismissal.  The Washington Times also reported President Trump said on May 10th he fired the FBI Director simply because “he was not doing a good job.”

[T]he President suggested that he did consider the investigation—namely the fact that “Trump and Russia is a made-up story”—when he decided to fire Comey.

The New York Times also noted an apparent contradiction regarding the actual time the President made the decision to fire Comey.  Sean Spicer noted on that Tuesday that the President decided to dismiss Comey after Rosenstein’s recommendation, but on May 11th, Sarah Sanders indicated that Trump had “already made that decision” before Rosenstein’s memo.  Perhaps the greatest contradiction by Trump administration officials was regarding whether the FBI’s investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign was a factor in Comey’s dismissal.  Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway adamantly stated on that Tuesday the firing had “nothing to do with Russia.”  The following Thursday, however, the President suggested that he did consider the investigation—namely the fact that “Trump and Russia is a made-up story”—when he decided to fire Comey.

Both President Trump and press secretary Spicer addressed the noted contradictions on Friday;  the President tweeted “As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at a podium with perfect accuracy!”  At a press briefing held later that day, Spicer blamed the media for the inconsistent statements, stating “We do our best to give you the answer, and every word is picked apart.”

While Comey’s seemingly abrupt firing outraged many, one could argue that his dismissal was actually the culmination of a long and arduous relationship between the FBI director and the Trump administration.  In March, Comey dismissed President Trump’s public accusations of his predecessor wiretapping him, calling the President “outside the realm of normal,” and even “crazy.”  The New York Times pointed out that while President Trump initially stated he decided to fire Comey based on the recommendations by the Attorney General and his deputy, “By Wednesday, it had amended the timeline to say that the president had actually been thinking about getting rid of the F.B.I. director as far back as November, after he won the election, and then became ‘strongly inclined’ after Mr. Comey testified before Congress.”

The article went on to note that in private, Trump aides had been “nursing a collection of festering grievances, including Mr. Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation, his seeming lack of interest in pursuing anti-Trump leaks and the perceived disloyalty over the wiretapping claim.”  An article by the Washington Post stated, “Trump had long questioned Comey’s loyalty and judgment, and was infuriated by what he viewed as the director’s lack of action in recent weeks on leaks from within the federal government.”

Perhaps the most recent catalyst for the firing was director Comey’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee the week before he was dismissed, in which he provided his first public explanation of his reopening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.  During the hearing, Comey refused to apologize for notifying Congress 10 days before the election about reopening the Clinton email investigation–a decision which many Clinton supporters later claimed cost her the presidency.  Director Comey also repeatedly refused to answer questions about the investigation into possible connections between Russia and Trump associates, but he reportedly acknowledged attempts by the Russian government to influence American politics.

While the true reasons for Comey’s dismissal remain heavily debated, the public outrage it caused cannot be questioned.  In the days following Comey’s dismissal, protestors gathered in Washington, Chicago, and other major cities, calling for an independent investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign.  Some vocal opponents of President Trump’s decision pointed out the similarities between Trump’s firing of Comey, who was leading an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, and President Richard Nixon’s infamous firing in 1974 of the special prosecutor who had been investigating his involvement in the Watergate scandal.

Public outrage escalated to calls for impeachment after news broke that Comey wrote a memo in February after a meeting with Trump in which the President asked him to end the federal investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn.

Public outrage escalated to calls for impeachment after news broke that Comey wrote a memo in February after a meeting with Trump in which the President asked him to end the federal investigation into Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn.  The President allegedly told Comey in the meeting, which was held the day after Flynn was removed from his position, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” according to the memo.  The New York Times reported the memo is “the clearest evidence that the president has tried to directly influence the Justice Department and F.B.I. investigation into links between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia.”  Comey previously shared the contents of the memo with senior F.B.I. officials and close associates.  The White House has since denied Flynn’s version of events stated in the memo.

Since news broke of the existence of the memo and its alleged contents, some Congressmen have responded that the President’s prior requests to Flynn may rise to the level of “obstruction of justice” into a federal investigation, while other members of Congress have gone as far as to make hints at impeachment.  On Tuesday, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) said if the allegations in the memo were true, it would be grounds for impeachment.  Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) told reporters on Wednesday “if the allegations contained in the so-called Comey memo were true, they constituted grounds for impeachment.”  Also on Wednesday, Rep. Al Green (D-TX) went as far as to call for the impeachment of President Trump on the floor of the House.  Chairman of the House Oversight Committee Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) has made plans to invite Comey to testify in an open session next week.

Perhaps the most significant development in the Comey controversy is the recent appointment by the Justice Department of Robert S. Mueller III, a former F.B.I. Director, as special counsel to oversee the investigation into the ties between Russia and the President’s campaign.  Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein made the decision shortly after Comey’s memo disclosure, amidst increasing pressure from Democrats, and even some Republicans, to appoint special counsel.  The President has since noted, “As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity.  I look forward to this matter concluding quickly.”

President Trump reportedly told reporters on Air Force One on May 13th that he hopes to “make a fast decision” regarding Comey’s replacement.  While Acting Director Andrew McCabe has been temporarily filling Comey’s shoes since Comey was fired, Trump could choose to appoint an interim director, which would not require confirmation by the Senate, while the administration searches for a more permanent replacement.

Lizzie Yelverton, Editor-in-Chief
About Lizzie Yelverton, Editor-in-Chief (9 Articles)
Lizzie Yelverton is a third year law student and serves as Editor-in-Chief for the Campbell Law Observer. She grew up in the small farming town of Eureka, NC, before moving to Raleigh to attend North Carolina State University. In 2015, Lizzie graduated from NC State with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in Philosophy. The year following her first year of law school, Lizzie worked as an intern for Senator Floyd B. McKissick, Jr. in the North Carolina General Assembly. Lizzie is the Public Relations Chair for Women in Law, as well as a member of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Campbell Law Innocence Project. She is currently working as a law clerk at the law office of Baddour, Parker, Hine, & Hale, P.C.