WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump abruptly fired the FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday, causing a seismic political and bureaucratic convulsion in Washington where his fledgling administration has had a hard time steadying itself.
Comey became the fifth senior public official to be eased out of the Trump administration in less than four months it has been in office – an unprecedented casualty rate at higher levels — following the canning of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, his deputy KT McFarland, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, and the Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh.
The President’s aides said Comey was fired because of his mishandling of the probe into Hillary Clinton’s email server, amid indications that Trump was miffed that he had eventually gone easy on the defeated presidential candidate. But in a brusque sack letter to the FBI Director, who was only three years into a ten-year term, Trump only alluded to the Bureau’s investigation into his campaign’s ties with Russia and his being not probed in the matter.
“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,” Trump wrote, adding he had “received the attached letters from the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General of the United States recommending your dismissal” and “you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.”
Trump dispatched the dismissal letter with his security major domo to be delivered personally to the FBI HQ when Comey was away in Los Angeles on official work. Comey learned of the sacking on live television during a speech to FBI agents, and initially though it was a prank and joked about it. An aide later read the sack letter to him over phone.
Abrupt and peremptory, the sacking was evocative for Washington oldtimers of Richard Nixon’s firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox during the Watergate scandal in what came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre, because it led to the resignation of several top officials.
There was no such immediate fall-out but Washington erupted in fury as Trump’s own aides (many caught unawares by the firing), lawmakers (including Republicans), and pundits (on both sides) tried to make sense of the development.
Although many Democrats believe Comey’s initial investigations into Hillary Clinton’s email server had cost her the election, it transpired that the FBI Director was no less unsparing in his dogged pursuit of the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russian tampering in the US election.
He also angered the President by saying, in effect he did not have any reason or evidence to believe Trump’s allegation that President Obama had wiretapped him.
Thus, both sides have been leery of Comey when it came to his investigation of their principals. Only last week, Trump publicly accused FBI Director of giving Clinton “a free pass for many bad deeds” when he decided not to recommend criminal charges in the case.
On Wednesday, Trump took to Twitter with gusto to taunt Democrats for objecting to his firing Comey even though they were the first to express no-confidence in him.
“Cryin’ Chuck Schumer stated recently, ‘I do not have confidence in him (James Comey) any longer.’ Then acts so indignant. #draintheswamp.” Trump tweeted, referring to the New York Senator who raged that the firing was an attempted cover-up of Trump’s alleged links to Russia.
On his part, Trump had publicly affirmed confidence in Comey, as long as he investigated Hillary Clinton, before turning against him. Meanwhile, amid a growing clamor among Democrats for a special independent investigator to continue the probe into the Trump campaign’s alleged Russian links, even Republican lawmakers expressed reservations about the firing. Calls came from Trump critics for GOP lawmakers to stand up to the President.
“I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination. I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee,” said Richard Burr, the Republican lawmaker who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, indicating the disquiet even in the GOP. His senior colleague John McCain said there was “not sufficient rationale” for Trump’s decision. Many others were in wait and watch mode.
Amid all these convulsions, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Washington, and is scheduled to meet Trump in the White House later in the day.Ahead of the meeting, Trump raged against Comey, Democrats, and “fake news” in a grievance-filled twitterstorm.