Once upon a time in America
Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey will jeopardise any future investigation
It is difficult to believe but the following story is true.
On Tuesday, May 9, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, fired the director of the FBI, James Comey, who was in the fourth year of a ten-year term. This is only the second time in history that a dismissal of an FBI director has occurred. According to reports, Trump conferred principally with his inner-inner circle, his daughter Ivanka, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, his vice president Mike Pence and his chief legal counsel Donald McGahn II. Frequently, or so it has been reported, Ivanka and Kushner temper the president’s more insane impulses. In this case they did not. Even the alt-right Breitbart extremist in the White House, Stephen Bannon, is said to have cautioned the president, self-evidently without effect. Almost alone, the even more erratic alt-right extremist and Trump confidante, Roger Stone, cheered on the Comey dismissal enthusiastically, tweeting triumphantly with Trump and his television show “The Apprentice” in mind – “You’re Fired”.
According to several reports, Trump had not prepared his media team for the entirely predictable storm of criticism that now came his way. After hiding among the bushes of the White House and as darkness fell, as the Washington Post reported, the president’s senior media spokesperson, Sean Spicer – Trump’s own Comical Ali – demanded that camera lights be turned off as he bumbled his way through a media conference, embarrassing even by his standards. For his part, despite Trump’s failure to forewarn his people, it is reported that as he watched evening television following Comey’s dismissal, the president was filled with rage when no voices rose to his defence. Apparently, astonishingly, at least according to several reports, the level of criticism following Trump’s firing of the FBI director took the president and his close circle by surprise.
Comey was delivering a talk in the FBI office in Los Angeles when television screens behind him announced his removal. At first, he thought the announcement a clever prank. Later, he discovered that Trump’s security guard, Keith Schiller, had delivered Trump’s letter to FBI headquarters in Washington notifying him of his dismissal. Trump later claimed that Comey was a “showboat” and a “grand-stander” – thoughts about pots and kettles immediately came to mind – and that under his leadership the FBI was in “turmoil” because of his poor judgment and unpopularity among his people, a verdict that Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe, soon authoritatively refuted. For those who follow American politics closely, Comey’s high regard among his staff comes as no surprise. In March 2004, while serving as deputy attorney-general, he proved himself a man of character and principle in resisting illegal action over wire-tapping suggested by members of President George W Bush’s White House team. As Comey left his post he wrote an unusually dignified letter to the 36,000 people employed by the FBI.
Trump claimed that Comey was fired because of his behaviour over the question of Hillary Clinton’s emails – either his announcement that there would be no criminal charges against Clinton in July 2016; and/or his unusual public statement at the time of this announcement that Clinton had been “extremely careless” in the way she handled her emails; and/or because of Comey’s re-opening of the Clinton case two weeks before the presidential election, after discovering some of her emails on the laptop of the disgraced Democrat politician, the compulsive sexter Anthony Weiner, whose wife, Huma Abedin, was a senior member of the Clinton campaign team.
Almost no one believed this explanation. If Trump decided to dismiss Comey over his Clinton misbehaviour in July or November why had he waited several months before doing so? Even more pertinently, if he had decided to fire Comey for this reason, why had the president praised the FBI director so handsomely for the courage he had displayed during the Clinton email affair that he had claimed had taken “a lot of guts”. To mislead the public with regard to the true motive for the firing, Trump almost certainly called upon his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, to provide the grounds for dismissal. In turn, Sessions called upon his newly appointed deputy, Rod Rosenstein, to write an opinion as to whether or not Comey should retain his post. This was, to put it mildly, unconvincing. It beggars belief that a deputy attorney-general should have any responsibility for a decision as momentous as this. When the issue exploded, the hapless Rosenstein came predictably under heavy fire. According to reports, having no desire to be the patsy behind whom Trump and Sessions hid, Rosenstein has considered resignation.
Why then was Comey fired? Almost everyone believes that Comey was fired principally because under his leadership the FBI was leading a criminal investigation into the possible links between the Trump team and Russia; because Comey had spoken openly and frankly about this investigation to a Congressional committee; and because in very recent days, Comey had applied to the White House for what the New York Times reported as “a significant increase in resources” for this inquiry.
According to insiders, Trump had been fuming for weeks over the Comey-led FBI Trump-team-and-Russia inquiry and was outraged at the temerity of Comey’s request for additional funds to conduct it, which was most likely for him the final straw. In addition, Comey clearly angered Trump when he told a Congressional committee that he felt “mildly nauseous” when he reflected that, in announcing he was re-opening the Clinton case, he might have influenced the outcome of the presidential election – an ambiguous comment open to misinterpretation by a grandiose, besieged and paranoid president. During this hearing, Comey made a minor mistake (corrected soon after) in the evidence given before the Senate intelligence committee about the emails discovered on Weiner’s laptop. In characteristic fashion, Trump now recognised an opportunity and pounced. Clearly, in firing Comey, Russia was at the forefront of the president’s mind. In his letter of dismissal Trump wrote: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.” No evidence of these three conversations has been forwarded. Moreover the idea that the president merely “concurred” with the views of the Department of Justice that Comey should be sacked is almost self-evidently absurd.
The dismissal of the director of the FBI – at a time when he was leading a criminal investigation into the possible links between the Trump team and Russia and, even more seriously, into the possible collusion between the Trump team and Russian intelligence in actions that might arguably have been part of the reason for the election of Trump – has thrown the US into a constitutional crisis potentially at least even more profound than the one that followed the discovery that President Richard Nixon had ordered a break-in to the Watergate Hotel. While Nixon’s actions against his Democrat opponents involved petty larceny, Trump’s may involve a criminal conspiracy with the intelligence service of a hostile foreign power.
Despite the obvious parallel with Watergate, by now on very many people’s minds, soon after the Comey scandal broke, Trump invited photographers into the Oval Office to take pictures, on the same day, of both the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and his wizened 93-year-old unofficial adviser on the Russian front, Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s old national security adviser and secretary of state. It is unlikely that Trump was displaying either his sense of history or his sense of humour. The same could not be said of the notoriously mischievous Russian foreign minister, who quipped to journalists when asked about Comey’s removal before discussions with his US counterpart, Rex Tillerson: “Was he fired? You’re kidding. You’re kidding.”
What is the present situation?
Two Congressional intelligence committees – one in the House, the other in the Senate – are currently investigating the links between the Trump team and Russia. The Senate Committee seems the more active, having recently requested all relevant records of their dealings with the Russian administration and Russian business from the principal Trump team suspects: Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager until it was revealed that he had received $12,700,000 in paybacks from the pro-Russian former Ukrainian prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych; Carter Page, a Trump foreign policy adviser who has been suspected of being an unwitting Russian agent for more than two years and who assumed a leading role in the memorandum of the former MI6 officer, Christopher Steele, that had alerted the FBI to the possible links between the Trump team and Russia; General Mike Flynn, who received $50,000 for an appearance celebrating the Russian propaganda television channel RT, where he sat beside Vladimir Putin; and Roger Stone, who weeks in advance predicted WikiLeaks’ publication of embarrassing emails hacked by the Russians from Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. The Senate intelligence committee has also recently applied to a branch of the US Treasury, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, for all its information concerning financial transactions between these people and Russians.
A grand jury in Virginia has recently served a subpoena on Mike Flynn for records concerning, among other things it is assumed, both his undisclosed $50,000 payment from Russia and a further undisclosed $500,000 he received from the Turkish government. The story behind Flynn and the subpoena is by now very complex. In late December 2016, shortly after Obama expelled 35 Russians who were suspected of involvement in espionage, as part of Trump’s team General Flynn on several occasions talked by phone to the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. When these calls became known, Vice-President Pence assured the public that the question of the sanctions imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea and its aggression in Eastern Ukraine had not been discussed. Unfortunately for both Flynn and Pence, the phone calls of the Russian ambassador to the United States are routinely tapped by US intelligence, as Flynn, once head of the Defence Intelligence Agency under Obama, ought to have known. Shortly after Pence’s remarks, the acting attorney-general, Sally Yates, who was privy to the intelligence that proved Pence’s public assurances false, warned the White House that in these conversations sanctions had indeed been discussed. As Yates recently explained to a Congressional committee, she believed she was obliged to inform the White House because of the self-evident danger that the mendacity of Trump’s national security adviser exposed him to the danger of Russian blackmail. As Yates put it: “To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.”
Although former president Obama, as we learnt recently, had warned Trump shortly after his election that Flynn could not be trusted, even after being informed by Yates of Flynn’s Kislyak lies, Trump did nothing. Eighteen days later, the Washington Post broke the story about the true content of the Flynn–Kislyak conversations. Trump now had no alternative but to ask Flynn for his resignation. A few days after warning the White House about Flynn, Yates was dismissed as acting attorney-general. According to one account, Trump used Yates’ entirely accurate remarks about the illegality of his anti-Muslim immigration presidential order as a pretext, not a reason, for her removal. After his resignation, Flynn offered to testify in Congress in return for immunity from prosecution. This was refused. Recently, instead, the subpoena was served on him.
Even if some kind of FBI investigation is continued into Trump and Russia when a new director is appointed and confirmed by the Senate, no one can any longer believe, despite the assurances of Comey’s replacement as acting director, Andrew McCabe, that it will be genuine. For this reason, both Democrats and some Republicans, including senators John McCain and Richard Burr, are calling for either the appointment of a special prosecutor or for the establishment of the kind of Senate select committee that conducted the Watergate investigation. Whether these calls will prove successful is not yet known. They rely on the (non-existent) integrity of the president; on the backbone of at least a handful of Republicans in the Congress; on the fearlessness and resolution of the liberal media, according to Trump, “the enemy of the people”; and above all else on the strength of American civil society.
In recent times, US politics has increasingly come to resemble a Preston Sturges screwball comedy or an episode of Veep. It is sobering however to remember that the character at the centre of this comedy has at his ready disposal the most powerful weaponry in the history of humankind.
Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent book, The Mind of the Islamic State, will be published in the US this month by Prometheus Books.