In all the furor over Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of James Comey, the Director of the FBI, there are several points that need to be calmly reflected upon. First, the White House seriously misread the reaction both of Congress and the American public to this unprecedented action by a sitting President.
Unprecedented in that no President has fired an FBI Director who was actively investigating his campaign and his administration. In fact, it is only the second time that a Director of the FBI has been fired. Bill Clinton fired Reagan appointee FBI Director William Sessions in 1993 after Sessions refused to step down while under investigation by the Bureau for ethical concerns.
Contrary to what many believe, Richard Nixon did not fire the FBI Director. He directed the Attorney General to fire the Special Prosecutor investigating him. That AG resigned. Nixon then gave the same order to the Acting Attorney General, who also resigned rather than comply with his order. It finally landed on the Solicitor General Robert Bork, yes THAT Robert Bork, to do the dirty deed. These events have gone down in history as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”
The timing of Trump’s firing is equally suspicious, coming as it did the day after it was announced that a federal grand jury in Virginia handed down a number of sealed indictments in their investigation of General Michael Flynn. There are reports that additional indictments are expected in the future.
But in many ways, Trump’s firing of Comey is far closer to his firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates than it is to Watergate. Trump then went on to fire all 43 U.S. Attorneys appointed by previous administrations. He has yet to name a replacement for any of them. But the work of these departments has continued, under the guidance of dedicated career officials. The same will occur with the FBI.
Once again, Trump is acting like a CEO than a President. He certainly has the authority to fire political appointees. But the vast majority of the employees of the FBI are career civil servants and they cannot be fired by the president or anyone else without showing cause. They will continue to pursue the investigations they are currently working on, until they are ordered to do otherwise.
Those who worry that the method Trump used to fire Comey – sending his personal bodyguard to deliver the dismissal letter to Comey – was somehow intended to send a threatening message to the rest of the FBI again miss the critical point. He simply does not have the power or authority to intimidate the vast majority of the employees of our nation’s premier law enforcement agency.
That Comey learned of his termination from news reports while speaking to FBI agents in Los Angeles simply proves what we’ve known all along. Trump is a bully who lacks the courage and the class to meet with the Director face to face. The only time has the guts to tell someone “You’re fired” is in the pretend world of reality TV.
The critical test facing Trump and Attorney General Sessions remains – Whom will they appoint as the new Director of the FBI? If they go with a career professional with a solid background in law enforcement, that would go a long way to reassuring the Congress and the public that this was not a clumsy attempt to block the Trump-Russia investigation.
However, if they choose to appoint a political hack who is one of Trump’s cronies, names such as Guiliani, Christie, and Sheriff Dave Clark have been floated on social media, then what is just a godawful mess right now could turn into a full-blown Constitutional crisis. At the very least, an independent investigatory commission or a special prosecutor would have to be appointed. And even with a 51-vote threshold for confirmation, Senate approval of such a nominee could prove problematic
Trump can’t fire the Senate Judiciary Committee either. If they take into consideration the recent Quinnipiac poll showing Trump at a dangerously low approval rating of 36%, and this poll was taken before Trump fired Comey, then a lot of R’s in Congress may start seriously re-thinking how much longer they want to continue to support a faltering and unpredictable president.