Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
In a brutal act of political manoeuvring that would have made even a Machiavellian like Frank Underwood blush, on Tuesday Donald Trump terminated and removed from office James Comey, the FBI’s Director, effective immediately.
A memorandum published by Rod Rosenstein, the Attorney General – note that his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, had recused himself from any investigations into electoral collusion with Russia – outlined a list of errors he considered Comey to have made throughout short tenure, noting especially his decision to speak so publicly about Hillary Clinton’s emails in July and October.
Comey had become a major thorn in the sides of Clinton and Trump before and after the November 2016 election respectively. Democrats remain convinced that Clinton was on course to win the presidency before Comey’s intervention. On October 28th, just days before the election, Comey publicly informed Congress that he was reviewing additional emails relating to questions of Clinton’s use of a private email server, exposing her biggest political weakness. Polling analysts FiveThirtyEight have since argued that Comey’s intervention cost Clinton the election, as late-deciding voters broke strongly against Clinton in swing states. Republicans in Trump’s camp have been angling for Comey’s head ever since he announced the FBI was opening an investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the election. Disliked by pockets of both sides of the political spectrum, Comey was even unpopular amongst voters, with registered voters rejecting him by two to one.
The political cover was evident for Comey’s dismissal the moment either Trump or Clinton ascended to the White House; it seemed almost inevitable. But the firing of Comey now along the lines laid out above makes neither political nor logical sense, leading to a broader set of unanswered questions. Ditching Comey, a man whom Trump once joked was “more famous” than him, comes at a time when the White House and Republican Congress are enjoying a rare moment of positive momentum, having last week passed a healthcare bill through the House of Representatives. Those positive optics are now shattered, replaced on TV screens and social media with fresh reminders of alleged collusions with the Russians and an executive acting less like a president and more like a power-hungry demagogue.
Someone in the White House isn’t looking beyond a 24-hour cycle. Firing the man at the forefront of an independent investigation into links with the Russians is bad. Doing so 12 hours before the President of the United States hosts the Russian Foreign Minister is politically disastrous.
A displeased Congress on both sides of the aisle
Leading figures from both the Republican and Democratic parties have expressed their concern at Comey’s dismissal, though it is worth noting that Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, had previously called for Comey’s head to roll. Senator Lindsey Graham, a consistent critic of this president, was clear in his broadcast media interviews that “this is not Watergate”. The very suggestion that Trump was acting in an unabashed Nixonian fashion tells you how potentially damaging this could be for the administration. Another long-term critic, Senator John McCain, said that when you fire “probably, arguably, the most respected person in America, you’d better have a very good explanation, and so far I haven’t seen that”.
Senator Richard Burr, the Chairman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee leading an investigation into alleged Russian interference in the election, said he was “troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination”. Burr is a senior Republican, the furthest possible distance away from the Democratic ‘resistance’ that might seek to score political points from Comey’s dismissal. In what is now certainly going to be blockbuster viewing, Comey will still testify to Congress.
Even the power of the President can’t make the Russian problem disappear
The bipartisan concern surrounding the nature and timing of Comey’s sacking is critical. With Congressional Republicans and Democrats in positions of power publicly alarmed by the events of the past 48 hours, the Washington machine will continue to press ahead with its multitude of investigations into allegations of Russian links with the Trump campaign. Always keen on rejecting that notion on Twitter to his 29 million followers, President Trump ensures by accident the political spotlight remains on an issue he is clearly desperate to shake.
Trump has made another very public enemy in Comey, and appears set, almost inevitably, to replace him with a ‘friend of the family’. Whilst Trump’s power as President is immense, he cannot control all the sources of influence in Washington that surround him, both institutional and individual. The Russia investigations remain ongoing across Capitol Hill and in news rooms around the world. President Trump may have made James Comey disappear, but his Russia problems won’t go away.