Politics & Policy

Comey’s Exit

FBI Director James Comey testifies before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, January 10, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
How and why the FBI director got fired.

Editor’s NoteThe following is an excerpt adapted from Conrad Black’s new book, Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other. It appears here with permission.

It was now to be the hour of James Comey, though not in the manner that the tall publicity-seeking FBI director might have planned. On May 3, he testified before the House Judiciary Committee and said that the Bureau had not, in his time, been asked to stop or change the course of an investigation, though advice had sometimes been given, but not more than that. He laid great emphasis on the investigation of Russia’s attempted interference in the 2016 election and said that “Russia is the greatest threat of any nation on earth.” He said they would “do this again, because of the 2016 election, they know it worked.” He did not expand on this, and did not claim that Russia had determined the result of the election. He said that Russia should be made to pay a price for its interference. These assertions were all far beyond his remit — it was not the business of the federal police director to pronounce on matters of geopolitical strategy. Even J. Edgar Hoover, who directed the FBI or its previous equivalent for 48 years, left such determinations to the eight presidents whom he served.

Six days later, Comey was fired by Trump, very unceremoniously, an event he only learned of by television, as he was out of Washington and the president’s letter had been delivered to his Washington office and, given the identity of the sender, had not been opened. The FBI director was entitled to greater personal consideration. The White House initially stated that the firing was at the suggestion of the attorney general and his just-appointed deputy, Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein had been critical, in a memo to Sessions, of Comey’s conduct in the Clinton investigation. Comey had certainly been presumptuous and inconsistent, even unprofessional.

Trump let it be known in interviews that, apart from what Rosenstein and Sessions had to say about Comey, Trump was annoyed because although Comey had told him three times, as Comey subsequently confirmed, that he, the president, was not a suspect in the Russian investigation, Comey declined to make that point publicly. He was thus effectively facilitating the efforts of the Democrats to immobilize the president and compromise him internationally and feed the media smear machine by pretending that a Watergate-style evaporation of executive authority was under way. (Anti-Trump commentators were predictably eager to make comparisons with President Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” — his firing of the attorney general and the special prosecutor in 1973. These were completely incomparable events, but very few people now remembered Nixon’s actions with any accuracy.)

Comey had asked to see Trump, had dinner with him on January 27, and made clear to the new president that he wished to remain as FBI director. Comey claims Trump asked him for loyalty and Comey, instead, promised honesty. Trump was irritated with Comey because he thought the FBI director should be doing more to apprehend and prosecute the leakers within the administration, all of the leaks being criminal offenses. On February 14, Trump allegedly told Comey that he hoped the FBI director would seek the imprisonment of reporters who were publishing classified information, which they knew to be illegal. In addition, he allegedly said that “I hope you can see your way clear to letting . . . [former national-security adviser Michael] Flynn go.” Comey wrote a memo of the conversation for his own files and later testified to Congress (June 8), that he took Trump’s comments as an order to drop the Flynn investigation, though that does not accord with Trump’s alleged words or his conduct, but he did not consider that Trump was attempting to obstruct the Russia investigation. Comey asked on March 4 that the Justice Department authorize him to deny publicly that the Obama administration had tapped Trump’s telephones at Trump Tower, as Trump had alleged, but permission was denied. (And at time of writing, it seems quite likely that Trump’s allegation was accurate.)

As Comey acknowledged in his testimony to Congress on June 8, he leaked his memo of the February 14 meeting, whose contents Trump disputed, to the New York Times, shortly after he was fired and said his motive was to provoke the appointment of a special counsel. This was slightly incongruous, as he did not allege that he feared Trump was trying to shut down the Russian investigation and had confirmed that Trump was not a suspect. But the differences between Trump and Comey were numerous, going back to what Trump considered his effort to deliver the election to Clinton, and including Trump’s belief that Comey was complicit in perpetuating the “made-up story” of Russian collusion by refusing to acknowledge publicly that Trump was not under investigation. Trump was also angry, with some reason, at Comey’s failure to do anything about illegal leaks from Obama holdovers in the administration, his failure (as Trump saw it) to look seriously at the dubious antics of the Clinton Foundation, and his failure to acknowledge or prevent government surveillance of Trump Tower.

On May 17, Trump met with two Russian diplomats and described Comey to them as a ‘nut job’ and also mentioned that he had received intelligence that ISIS might try to smuggle bombs onto aircraft in laptops.

On May 12, Trump tweeted that Comey should hope that “there are no tapes of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press.” This was a bothersome comment, although Trump may believe that it obliged Comey to be careful in subsequent accounts of their conversations. On June 22, two weeks after Comey’s congressional testimony, faced with a subpoena for production of such tapes, Trump tweeted that he had “no idea whether there are ‘tapes’ or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings.” A tweeted response was a calculatedly cavalier slap in the face to the militant Democrats on the committee, who reacted rather petulantly. The pugnacious Adam Schiff, Democratic congressman from Hollywood (to whose rabidly partisan and usually foolish collective views he gave unceasing voice), demanded elaboration and said Trump’s tweet had made things less and not more clear. Trump ignored Schiff, who was a constant television presence sanctimoniously implying the president was guilty of outrages almost every night, and Trump had his assistant press secretary say the president’s tweet was “extremely clear.”

On May 17, Trump met with two Russian diplomats and described Comey to them as a “nut job” and also mentioned that he had received intelligence that ISIS might try to smuggle bombs onto aircraft in laptops. This was all leaked by White House personnel to the press, who then accused Trump of giving away Israeli intelligence. This backfired on the media, when it was pointed out that it ill-behooved the media to incite and publish leaks of confidential information while righteously accusing Trump of causing these indiscretions. Israeli prime minister Netanyahu dismissed suggestions that he had any concerns about what Trump told the Russians, and these complaints quickly vanished; in the Washington jargon of the times, it was another nothingburger, for his legal staff, which denied the appearance of an impartial inquiry and instead made it seem like an anti-Trump fishing expedition (which it almost certainly was), though Rosenstein publicly said that he would not authorize Mueller to go beyond the logical remit of his investigation.

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