President Trump’s firing of the FBI director James Comey has rocked Washington. And while the president is still outwardly unperturbed and his aides are doing their best to create an alternative set of facts to deal with the situation, the real facts are winning. And those facts are chilling and have placed the administration of president Donald Trump in a state of utter mess.
James Comey had earned the president’s profuse kudos when 10 days before the elections, he had opened Hillary Clinton’s e-mail investigation that by all accounts now was one of the major causes that defeated the Democratic candidate. Therefore, the president would not have fired him unless there was an extraordinary reason for it.
There was, indeed, such a reason. The FBI has been conducting an investigation into Russian involvement in the presidential elections — an investigation that had been started before the new president took oath. Simultaneously, the senate is also carrying out its own investigation on the same subject. Reports leaked in the media about the FBI investigations suggested strongly about Russian involvement in favour of president Trump.
Similar evidence has also come out of the ongoing senate investigation. In particular, the submissions of former acting attorney general Sally Yates and former director of National Intelligence James Clapper created significant fears in the White House that the investigation by the FBI could implicate aides now working in the White House or were working in the Trump campaign.
Both Sally Yates and James Clapper did not implicate the president. However, they said in the same breath that if he were, they would not have known about it. They, therefore, did not give the president a clean bill. The president quoted James Comey to clear himself that he had told him three times that he was not under investigation that the director denied. Therefore, the president was in fear with both the investigations, especially by the FBI, which had the ability and the manpower to finish the task.
The president said at first that he had fired the director on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general Rod Rodenstein (the attorney general has recused or disqualified himself from the case). He further said that he agreed with the reasons given by the deputy attorney general for the dismissal that the director had been incompetent with the Hillary Clinton e-mail saga, that he had lost the confidence of the agency and, finally, that his leadership had led to the loss of public confidence in the FBI.
The first explanation was unbelievable because that handling of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail now being described as incompetent had earned president Trump the White House. And the deputy FBI director Steve McCabe while testifying in the senate said that James Comey was held in very high regard in the agency and that there was no issue of the agency losing public confidence. A number of national polls also backed Steve McCabe’s assessment of James Comey and the FBI’s high standing with the American public.
The president had expected that as James Comey was disliked by the Democrats and the Republicans equally, the latter because he had declined to recommend to persecute Hillary Clinton when he had submitted his report to the Congress on the Clinton email in July last year, the firing would not cause any disquiet. Therefore, he was surprised of the bipartisan uproar over it and the media that called it one of the worst-ever crisis a president had faced in the history of US politics.
President Trump gave an interview to NBC’s Lester Holt thinking that he would be able to clear the uproar and come out unharmed. Instead, in that interview he changed his first explanation and literally opened a Pandora’s box. Lester Holt played with the president’s ego who fell for it when he asked him if he had, indeed, fired the director on the deputy attorney general’s recommendation. The president set the question aside and allowed his ego get the better of him. He said that he had made up his mind to fire the director soon after he took office.
A team of the president’s inner circle including the vice-president had gone to the media to build the case that the president had acted decisively in dismissing the director based on the DAG’s recommendation. The new explanation underlined that there is no coordination in the president’s inner circle. And worse still, it also underlined his team of lying and, therefore, as officials that the people could not trust. And it is the president who exposed his inner circle to such humiliation before the US public.
The president, however, instead of realising the harm he had done to his team, explained that the contradictions in statements between him and his team on key issues were the outcome of the latter’s inability to keep pace with him. No one took this explanation seriously because the president backed this weird explanation by threatening to replace the White House’s daily press briefings with written statements and texts! He made a greater mess of the Comey affair when he told Lester Holt that James Comey had pleaded with him for extension on his job.
This was untrue and no one needed to prove it. James Comey started a 10-year term in 2014. Unlike the other Trump appointees, he did not need the president’s nod to stay in his job. The president has the power to sack an FBI director but the term has been made unusually long to extend into the terms of two presidents in the aftermath of the Watergate to insulate the office from the president and the White House. And for James Comey asking for the dinner invitation, it is incredible that someone could ask to be invited to dinner at the White House and get it.
It is not that the president did not know why the FBI director’s term has been made that long. He was also aware of the extensive and independent powers of the FBI to investigate anyone, including the president. That is why he needed James Comey’s loyalty desperately and it was not the other way round as the president tried to explain.
That he fired him after the director had declined to assure him of his loyalty underlined that he wanted to stop the investigations because he feared that it could reveal information that could bring down his administration like a pack of cards. He, therefore, dismissed James Comey being aware that it could be construed as obstruction of justice, an allegation worse than what brought president Nixon down. Nevertheless, he knew in the Republican-controlled Congress, he had no fear of facing the predicament that president Nixon had faced with Watergate.
The suspicions notwithstanding, president Trump has saved himself and is administration from grave consequences that he knew would result if James Comey had been allowed to complete the FBI investigations. Therefore, despite all the uproar, Donald Trump knew exactly what he was doing when he fired James Comey. In other words, there was surely a method in his madness.
The president is still defending his decision to fire James and also busy looking for a new FBI director. The Democrats are demanding the appointment of a special counsel to look into the Russian affair before a new FBI director is appointed. A few Republicans are showing some bipartisanship but not enough to deal with a president who is now not just bent upon removing individuals in his way who oppose him but also on demolishing the institutions upon which American democracy stands in the name of giving power back to the people from ‘crooked Washington.’
Things could, nevertheless, change with the midterm elections next year where if the Democrats take control of the senate that seems very likely and the House that may not be unlikely, then it is more than impeachment that is staring at the US president in a year and a half. Meanwhile, sanity would remain suspended in Washington as president Trump continues to govern his country as he had the Trump empire and his reality show The Apprentice.
Postscript: With Russia and Russian connections at the heart of what is now rocking Washington, the president received the Russian foreign minister in the White House. He banned all except the Russian media from covering the event. This has led to another crisis showing the potentials to be as threatening as the James Comey affair, if not more, because president Trump is now being accused of sharing classified secrets with Russia!
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
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