The White House announced Tuesday that it was firing FBI Director James Comey. In a memo, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein cited Comey’s press conference regarding the investigation Hillary Clinton’s emails in July 2016 as the reason for firing him. Rosenstein stated that Comey was “wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority” and announce his “conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution.” The memo concludes that, because of several lapses in judgment and breaches of longstanding Justice Department practices, Comey can no longer enjoy the confidence of the President or the American people and should be removed. In a nutshell, the letter argues that Comey should have announced that the FBI investigation had concluded, and left the decision of whether or not to prosecute to the Department of Justice.
Like so many Trump policies, the memo was released without warning, catching the media, politicians, and its target off guard. Comey learned that he’d lost his job when a news report appeared on a TV screen that was visible while he was giving a speech; he later received the formal memo.
The memo does not, however, explain why the administration waited more than three months to fire Comey over actions taken last year. The firing letter does thank Comey for telling President Trump on three occasions that the President was not being investigated.
The firing comes ahead of Comey’s planned testimony on May 11 regarding Russian interference in last year’s election, and removes him from the FBI’s ongoing investigation into that interference. The timing of the firing, coupled with the fact that it allows President Trump to place a new FBI head in charge of said investigation, seem suspicious at the least.
Equally strange is the involvement of Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the case. According to the New York Times, Sessions pushed for Comey’s firing, despite the fact that Sessions had previously recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference. It seems strange that recusal from an investigation would not preclude firing the head of that investigation; at the very least, Sessions involving himself in the firing gives the appearance of impropriety. Compounding the strangeness is Session’s statement last year that Comey had an “absolute duty” to make the very statement that Sessions now recommended firing Comey for making.
The move sparked surprise and outrage from lawmakers, including calls for a special prosecutor from Democratic Representative Adam Schiff (the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee) and Republican Representative Justin Amash:
Firing of Comey tainted by extraordinary conflict of interest. Independent prosecutor must be appointed to restore any public confidence. pic.twitter.com/m5fSJ3LpiG
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) May 9, 2017
My staff and I are reviewing legislation to establish an independent commission on Russia. The second paragraph of this letter is bizarre. https://t.co/wXeDtVIQiP
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) May 9, 2017
The move also sparked comparisons to President Nixon’s infamous Saturday Night Massacre, in which Nixon’s attempt to fire a special prosecutor prompted his Attorney General to resign in protest, as did the first Acting Attorney General to take over. The comparison is imperfect, as nobody has resigned at this point and Comey was not specifically hired to investigate Trump’s wrongdoing, as Nixon’s special prosecutor was, but the general outline holds: a President facing an investigation uses the power of the office, and a fig-leaf excuse, to remove the person responsible for that investigation.