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Dismissal of James Comey
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Trump claimed in the termination letter that Comey had told him "on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation". This statement has been overwhelmingly contested as false, including by 30 officials at the White House, the Justice Department, the FBI and on Capitol Hill, who state that Roger Stone, Rudy Giuliani, Jeff Sessions, Keith Schiller, and other Trump associates had urged the president to fire Comey.
Initially, Trump and the White House cited Comey's handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server as the reason for his dismissal. Later, however, Trump contradicted this, indicating that the dismissal was connected to the counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump stated, "When I decided [to fire Comey], I said to myself, I said, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won." White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders expressed the hope that firing Comey would help bring the Russia investigation to an end. According to at least two Comey associates reported in the Wall Street Journal, CBS News, and the The New York Times, Trump had asked Comey in January for a pledge of personal loyalty to him alone, which Comey declined to offer, only offering "honesty". Several sources within the FBI have stated that the White House's firing of Comey was a culmination of high-level efforts to interfere in the Russia investigation, prompting some commentators to accuse the Trump administration of a cover-up.
Criticism of Trump's decision came immediately from across the political spectrum, with many Democrats calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor to continue the investigation into Russia's influence on the election, and many elected officials of both parties calling for an independent investigation or expressing concerns.
Trump seemed to confirm a significant amount of these allegations, including secret oaths of loyalty that were given to appointments. In a Twitter statement, he threatened Comey and other FBI members to not testify in court in the Russia investigation, saying that he had blackmail on him and would leak tapes if they "kept leaking to the press" and testifying about the investigation. He also suggested opening up libel laws and implied that he planned to amend the First Amendment of the Constitution to allow for lawsuits to be levied against media outlets for reporting stories about him in the press he perceives as negative, as well as shutting down press briefings in favor of submitting statements written by administration personnel to the media. Trump also stated that Americans shouldn't trust any media sources; only himself.
BackgroundIn March 2015, it came to light that United States presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had used a private e-mail server for her work as secretary of state under President Barack Obama. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched an investigation to determine whether Clinton had violated the law and whether national security had been breached. In July 2016 FBI Director James Comey announced that he was not recommending that any charges be brought against Clinton. The decision was decried by Republican leaders and candidates, including then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. In late October 2016, Comey announced that the investigation was being re-opened because of additional documents that had been obtained. Two weeks later he announced that no new information had been discovered and the investigation was again being closed. The announcement of the re-opened investigation was seen by many observers as unnecessary and harmful to Clinton's campaign. Others again complained because the second investigation did not yield prosecution.
In 2012, Michael T. Flynn was nominated by President Barack Obama to be the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and subsequently confirmed. Flynn took command of the DIA in July 2012. He was reportedly forced to resign in 2014 though the reasons were never publicly stated by the administration. Subsequently, Flynn became an intelligence consultant and lobbyist for both businesses and governments. In a 2017 filing, he reported having collected $530,000 from a Dutch firm allegedly representing the Turkish government. During 2016, he made more than one public appearance advocating for the Turkish government. In 2015, he gave a paid speech for and made regular appearances on RT, Russia's state funded news network. Despite continuing to have a security clearance, Flynn did not disclose his payments from foreign governments until 2017. Flynn became heavily involved with Donald Trump's presidential campaign in 2016 and became his National Security Adviser following the election, despite warnings to then-President-elect Trump by the Obama administration. Flynn subsequently had contacts with the Russian government, before Trump took office, that were seen as suspicious by the Obama administration. Flynn was forced to resign in February 2017 as revelations about his contacts with Russia came to light.
Others involved in Trump's campaign and administration had controversial contacts as well. Carter Page, a foreign-policy consultant for the Trump campaign, had contacts with the Russian government that came under FBI investigation. Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign manager, was forced to resign in August 2016, as a result of questions regarding his dealings with Ukraine and Russia. Jeff Sessions, Trump's attorney general, was forced to recuse himself from investigations of Russian interference when it was revealed that he had suspicious communications with the Russian ambassador during Trump's campaign (he came under fire for not having previously disclosed these communications). Rex Tillerson, Trump's secretary of state, has had close contact with the Russian government as a result of his business dealings and was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship medal by Vladimir Putin. There were numerous others.
On October 7, 2016, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jointly stated that individuals working on behalf of the Russian government had hacked servers and e-mail accounts associated with the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign and leaked their documents to WikiLeaks. This would be confirmed by numerous private security experts and other government officials. The FBI launched investigations into both the hackings, and contacts between Trump associates and Russia.
In January 2017, Comey testified to Congress confirming Russia's alleged interference in the U.S. election and confirmed an ongoing investigation although he refused to comment specifically on the Trump organization. President-elect Trump stated his intention to keep Comey as the FBI director. In March, Comey finally confirmed that the FBI was investigating links between the Trump campaign and Russia. He also refuted Trump's allegations that the Obama administration had wiretapped him.
During the weeks leading up to May 9, grand jury subpoenas were issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Alexandria, Virginia, to associates of Michael Flynn for the purpose of obtaining records relating to the investigation of Russia's role in the election. News outlets became aware of these subpoenas on May 9.
In May, Comey gave additional testimony before the Senate regarding the Clinton e-mail probe and the Russia investigations. Comey requested additional money and resources from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to expand the probe into Russian interference into the presidential election.
May 9–11On Tuesday May 9, President Trump hired a law firm to send a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee denying any business or other connections to Russia. This letter was a response to earlier statements by Senator Lindsey Graham stating that he wanted to know whether there were any such ties. That same day news outlets became aware of subpoenas being issued for associates of Michael Flynn in the Russia investigation.
Later that evening, President Trump sent a letter to the FBI terminating Director Comey. Trump cited recommendations from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his Deputy Rod Rosenstein. Comey was traveling in California at the time and the termination was seen by observers as a surprise. Comey learned about the termination through the news media. He had served only three and a half years of his 10-year term. Comey was only the second FBI Director ever to have been fired; the first was William S. Sessions, who was fired by President Bill Clinton in 1993, after allegations of ethical improprieties were made against William S. Sessions by the Office of Professional Responsibility.
News commentators immediately characterized the termination as extraordinary and controversial. CNN's legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin went so far as to characterize it as an "abuse of power". It was compared to the Saturday Night Massacre, President Richard Nixon's termination of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who had been investigating the Watergate scandal. John Dean, White House Counsel under President Nixon, called it a "a very Nixonian move" saying that it "could have been a quiet resignation, but instead it was an angry dismissal". The New York Times' Editorial Board rapidly published an editorial slamming the move, calling Trump's explanation "impossible to take at face value" and stating Trump had "decisively crippled the FBI's ability to carry out an investigation of him and his associates".
Democratic Senator Chuck Shumer immediately renewed his call for a special prosecutor to investigate Russia's involvement in the election and its influence on members of the Trump campaign and administration. Republican Senator John McCain renewed his call for a special congressional committee to investigate. Democratic Representative Adam Schiff observed that Sessions had previously recused himself from involvement in the Russia investigation and suggested that recommending Comey's termination violated that pledge because Comey was the lead investigator. In addition to the outrage from Democratic leaders, some Republican leaders also immediately expressed concern, including Richard Burr, Roy Blunt, Bob Corker, Justin Amash, and others. Other Republican leaders came to Trump's defense including Susan Collins and Lindsey Graham.
Immediate response from the White House regarding concerns from congressional leaders and the media was limited. White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders stated that the White House would push for an immediate ending of Russian investigations and that it was time to "move on" from accusations of Russian interference into the election. President Trump stated in Comey's termination letter that Comey had asserted "on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation". In an interview for CNN, President Trump's Counselor, Kellyanne Conway, denied that Comey's dismissal is part of a White House cover-up. Trump furthermore commented on Twitter, mocking Senators Chuck Schumer and Richard Blumenthal, and saying that Schumer was "crying like a baby" and that Blumenthal "devised one of the greatest military frauds in U.S. history".
Dear Director Comey:
I have received the attached letters from the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General of the United States recommending your dismissal as the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I have accepted their recommendation and you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.
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.
It is essential that we find new leadership that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission.
I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.— Donald J. Trump
Reasons for dismissalOn May 8, 2017, Trump directed Attorney General Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein to make a case against Comey in writing. Sessions and Rosenstein delivered their comments to Trump the following day. Trump then dismissed Comey, saying he was doing so on their recommendation — although Trump said two days later that he would have fired Comey irrespective of any recommendation from the Justice Department.
Rosenstein criticized Comey on two grounds: for usurping the prerogative of the Justice Department and the Attorney General in his July 2016 public statements announcing the closure of the investigation into Clinton's emails, and for making derogatory comments about Clinton in that same meeting. Both of these actions, he argued, are in conflict with longstanding FBI policy. Comey had previously defended his extraordinary action, saying that Attorney General Loretta Lynch had a conflict of interest. Rosenstein argued that in such a case, it is the duty of the Attorney General to recuse herself, and that there is a process for another Justice Department official to take over her duties.
In the dismissal letter, Trump cited the recommendations by Sessions and Rosenstein as the reason for firing Comey. Sessions, in his letter, also cited Rosenstein's recommendation as the reason for the firing. Sessions made the recommendation despite the fact that he had previously recused himself from anything to do with the investigation into ties between Trump's team and Russia, as well as from the Clinton email controversy. Senator Al Franken called Sessions' actions a "complete betrayal" of his promise to recuse.
The White House released a statement claiming that Comey "lost the support" of "rank and file" FBI employees, saying that they had no choice to dismiss him. However, FBI agents "flatly rejected" this assertion, and Comey was in fact relatively well-liked and admired within the Bureau. In testimony given to the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 11, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a career FBI agent, contradicted the White House's claim that Comey had lost the confidence of the rank-and-file.
The timing of the ouster, just a few days after Comey allegedly requested additional money and personnel to step up the Russia investigation, left many observers suspicious; this alleged request by Comey was denied by a Department of Justice spokesman. In an interview with Lester Holt, Donald Trump contradicted other statements from the White House, and stated that he fired Comey due to how he was handling the Russia investigation, along with stating that there was no proof that Russia was behind any election interference.
Media reports cast doubt on the justification for Comey's dismissal. In a report based on anonymous interviews with White House staff, CNN reported that Trump's decision to fire Comey had been made first, with Sessions' and Rosenstein's letters being drafted to justify the decision. According to an anonymous source which spoke to The Washington Post, they were instructed to do so by Trump on May 8. The same source also said that Rosenstein had threatened to resign after his letter was cited as the primary reason for Comey's dismissal. Other media noted the disconnect between the dismissal and Trump's praise of Comey's actions in the campaign and throughout his presidency until a week beforehand.
The cause of the dismissal has been disputed, with insider sources claiming that Trump was furious at Comey for refusing to back up his wiretap accusations against former President Barack Obama, as well as not defending him from accusations of collusion with the Russian government. According to sources, Trump privately asked Comey for an "assurance of personal loyalty", which Comey apparently refused, so Trump was planning to replace him with a new appointed FBI director, loyal only to him, who would redirect the investigation away from Trump associates. Another source told The Atlantic that Trump fired Comey because Trump was concerned about what Flynn would testify in court. The next day, several FBI insiders said Comey was fired because "he refused to end the Russia investigation." White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders expressed the hope that firing Comey would help bring the Russia investigation to an end. In an NBC interview, Trump stated, "When I decided [to fire Comey], I said to myself, I said, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story".
Trump himself seemed to contradict the White House claim that he had acted because of the Clinton email issue identified by Rosenstein. On May 10 he told reporters he fired Comey "because he wasn't doing a good job". In an interview on May 11, Trump said he had intended all along to fire Comey, regardless of any recommendation, calling it his decision to fire Comey. The White House in a statement said that firing Comey was a step in letting the probe into Russian interference in the previous election "come to its conclusion with integrity", which the White House wanted.
Many media outlets continued to be highly critical of the move, with some commentators describing it as a "Nixonian" act (comparing Comey's dismissal to the events of the Saturday Night Massacre), and others suspecting that the firing was an attempt to cover up a possible discovery of the extent of Trump's alleged ties to Russia by curtailing the FBI's investigation. Soon after Trump's election, Lawfare prognosticated about a future firing of Comey and wrote: "If Trump chooses to replace Comey with a sycophantic yes-man, or if he permits Comey to resign over law or principle, that will be a clear bellwether to both the national security and civil libertarian communities that things are going terribly wrong." Immediately after the firing, they reiterated their position, stating that Trump's firing of Comey "undermines the credibility of his own presidency"; they implied that the firing was likely pretextual as Trump had previously praised Comey's handling of the Clinton investigation.
Some commentators observed an emerging pattern of Trump firing government officials involved in investigating his interests: Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, and Comey. Some even went so far as to describe it as part of an ongoing "coup," citing previous statements and actions during Trump's campaign and the early months of his presidency that critics suggested were indicative of his authoritarian personality, and disrespect for the rule of law and democratic norms that they fear could result in the U.S. transitioning into an autocratic government.
Other media outlets were more supportive. Some sources have stated that, regardless of circumstances, Comey had lost the confidence of the political leadership on all sides of the spectrum and, therefore, his termination was unavoidable in spite of criticizing the president's handling of it and questioning his motives. Many went so far as to decry the hypocrisy of Democrats and other Trump opponents who criticized the termination after previously having criticized Comey himself for the handling of the Clinton scandal. Some even called for a re-opening of the Clinton investigation now that Comey has left.
The White House continued to insist that no special prosecutor was necessary in the Russia investigation, instead giving its support to Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein who is currently leading the effort, along with Comey's future successor. The White House has also said that it was "time to move on" after the 2016 election. President Trump tweeted that Democratic members of Congress calling for a special prosecutor and criticizing the dismissal of Comey are "phony hypocrites!"
During comments to the press at White House meeting the next day, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov joked about Comey's termination, expressing mock surprise at the news. For many critics, the immediate worry is the integrity of the FBI's investigation into the Trump administration's ties to Russia.
By the end of the day on May 10, the narrative that the White House had given, characterizing Rosenstein's opinions as the primary reason for Comey's termination, had so angered Rosenstein that he threatened to quit the Department of Justice. (see also Rod Rosenstein#Comey memo). On May 10, Comey sent a farewell letter to the FBI and his friends.
On May 11, twenty state and district attorneys general led by Maura Healey of Massachusetts, signed a letter asking Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint an "independent special counsel" to investigate Russia's attempts to meddle in the United States presidential election.
Comey invited to testify to CongressComey was fired two days before he was scheduled to testify at an Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats. On May 10, the day after being fired by Trump, Comey was invited to testify before a closed session of the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 16.
Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is seeking to allow Comey to testify at an open, public hearing, stating that it is "extremely important that Comey come to an open hearing in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as quickly as possible and testify as to the status of the U.S.-Russia investigation at the time of his firing".
Reactions from members of CongressAmong members of Congress:
- 136 Democrats, two independents (Senators Bernie Sanders and Angus King), and one Republican (Representative Tom McClintock), called for a special prosecutor, independent prosecutor, or an independent commission to examine ties between the Russian government and Trump's associates.
- 84 Democrats and six Republicans called for an independent investigation into Russian ties. For example, Republican Senator John McCain said "I have long called for a special congressional committee" while Democratic Representative Salud Carbajal stated that "anything less would imperil our democracy".
- 40 Republicans, and 9 Democrats, expressed "questions or concerns" about Comey's firing; examples of members of Congress in this group are Republican Senator Marco Rubio ("I do have questions"); Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski ("serious cause for concern"); Democratic Representative Marcia L. Fudge ("the American people deserve answers").
- 97 Republicans, but no Democrats, were neutral or supportive of Comey's firing.
- 144 Republicans and 12 Democrats did not release a statement.
Reactions from within the FBIComey was generally well-liked within the FBI, and his sudden dismissal shocked many FBI agents, who admired Comey for his political independence. Agents were stunned that Comey was fired in the midst of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The dismissal reportedly damaged morale within the Bureau. The way that Comey had first learned that he had been fired—from television news reports, while he was in Los Angeles—also angered agents, who considered it a sign of disrespect from the White House.
Trump's statements post-firingTwo days after dismissing Comey, Trump gave an interview to Lester Holt of NBC News. Trump indicated that the firing was connected to the Russia investigation, saying "When I decided [to fire Comey], I said to myself, I said, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story". He reviled Comey ("He's a showboat, he's grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil". "You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that.") and said he had been planning on firing Comey regardless of recommendations. This contradicted earlier statements on the matter by Trump, Sarah Sanders, Jeff Sessions and other administration associates, which stated that Trump fired Comey based on the recommendations of Sessions and Rod J. Rosenstein, saying that he only used their recommendations as a pretext for firing Comey.
|President Trump's dismissal of James Comey was...|
|President Trump's fired James Comey due to...|
|Clinton email investigation||24%||43%||13%||21%|
|Allegations of Trump campaign contact with Russia|
|More of a distraction||40%||78%||13%||40%|
|NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll conducted May 10–11, 2017, ±2.5%*|
|President Trump's firing of James Comey|
|How much does it bother you that President Trump fired James Comey?a|
|Bothers me a lot||55%||—||61%||50%|
|Bothers me somewhat||24%||—||17%||32%|
|Bothers me a little||13%||—||12%||14%|
|Doesn't bother me at all||7%||—||8%||3%|
|What did President Trump fire James Comey for?b|
|Why did President Trump fire James Comey?c|
|Disrupt Russia investigation||47%||24%||75%||40%|
|Unrelated to Russia investigation||26%||47%||8%||27%|
|HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted May 10–11, 2017, ±4.4%*|
|President Trump's decision to remove James Comey was...|
|Don't know/No opinion||29%||26%||22%||38%|
|President Trump’s decision to remove James Comey was...d|
|Don't know/No opinion||24%||25%||15%||31%|
|President Trump’s decision to remove James Comey was...e|
|Don't know/No opinion||25%||20%||25%||30%|
|Who do you think should be most responsible for handling the investigation?f|
|Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted May 9–11, 2017, ±2.0%**|
- * All adults
- ** Registered voters
- ^a Asked of those who think President Trump made the wrong decision.
President Trump said he fired James Comey because of Comey's handling
of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email
server. Do you think:
- Trump fired Comey because of the Clinton investigation
- Trump fired Comey for a different reason
- Not sure
James Comey was leading an investigation into Russian interference in
the 2016 election and whether any Trump campaign associates colluded
with Russia. Do you think:
- Trump fired Comey at least partly to disrupt the Russia investigation
- Trump’s firing of Comey was unrelated to the Russia investigation
- Not sure
- ^d As you may know, there have been reports that some Trump campaign officials are being investigated by the FBI for alleged connections or contacts with the Russian government during the 2016 elections. Knowing this, do you think President Trump's decision to remove James Comey as the FBI Director was...
- ^e As you may know, it was recently reported that, during a testimony before Congress, the former FBI Director James Comey misstated several details about a previous investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private server for emails while serving as Secretary of State. Knowing this, do you think President Trump's decision to remove James Comey as the FBI Director was...
- ^f As you may know, several Trump campaign officials have been under investigation by the FBI for alleged connections or contacts with the Russian government during the 2016 elections, and the investigation was led by former Director of the FBI, James Comey. Knowing this, who do you think should be most responsible for handling the investigation?
President Trump on Thursday said he was thinking of "this Russia thing with Trump" when he decided to fire FBI Director James B. Comey, who had been leading the counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. ... Trump’s account flatly contradicts the White House’s initial account of how the president arrived at his decision, undercutting public denials by his aides that the move was influenced in any way by his growing fury with the ongoing Russia probe.