James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), was dismissed by U.S. President Donald Trump on May 9, 2017. Comey had been under public and political pressure as a result of both the FBI's role in the Hillary Clinton email controversy and the FBI's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, which also involves a possible collusion with the 2016 Donald Trump campaign. In the termination letter, Trump wrote that Comey had told him on three separate occasions that he was not under investigation. According to The Washington Post, sources stated that this and other assertions Trump made about events leading up to the dismissal were false, and Trump subsequently implied that he may have the conversations with Comey on tape.
After the dismissal, Trump said that he had been considering the dismissal since the election, had experienced an "erosion of confidence" because Comey was "not doing a good job", pointing to Comey's recent congressional testimony as problematic, and also basing the dismissal partly on a recommendation from the United States Department of Justice alleging that Comey had mishandled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. These justifications were criticized by some Democrats and political commentators, and Trump later sought to further explain his decision to dismiss Comey, saying that Comey was a "showboat" and "grandstander", while Trump also indicated that the dismissal was connected to dissatisfaction with the counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the election. During a meeting on 10 May with Russian officials, at which Trump disclosed classified information that had been given to the Americans by Israel, Trump also boasted about firing Comey, describing Comey as "crazy, a real nut job" and saying to them that he (Trump) "faced great pressure because of [the] Russia [investigation]. That's [now] taken off."
According to Comey associates, Trump had asked Comey in January to pledge loyalty to him, to which Comey demurred, instead offering him "honesty", and when pressed further by Trump, "honest loyalty". Trump denied that he asked Comey for his loyalty, but says such a discussion would not necessarily have been inappropriate. 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. Appearing before Congress two days after the dismissal, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe testified: "There has been no effort to impede our investigation to date", later adding "I cannot comment on any conversations that the Director may have had with the president". Comey has accepted an invitation from the Senate Intelligence Committee to testify at a public hearing.
On May 16, 2017, the New York Times reported on the existence of a memo written by Comey in February after a conversation with Trump, in which the FBI director described Trump's request that the FBI shut down the investigation into Trump associate Michael T. Flynn, who had resigned as National Security Adviser the previous day. The White House denied the allegation. Comey personally believes that the White House tried to get him to halt the investigation.
Comey's termination was controversial, with some comparing it to President Richard Nixon's termination of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre, while Bob Woodward said the matter was not yet comparable to Watergate. On May 17, 2017 the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel to oversee the Russia investigation.
The first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, died in 1972 as a controversial figure after holding that position for over 37 consecutive years. A 1976 amendment to the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control Act, then limited the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to a ten-year term, "an unusually long tenure that Congress established to insulate the director from political pressure." During his tenure as FBI director, Comey emphasized the need for the FBI to be independent from politics and avoid the "political winds".
Nevertheless, though the FBI director is appointed for a 10-year term, the president has the power to dismiss an FBI director for any reason. However, Trump's dismissal of Comey raised the issue of possible political interference by a sitting president into an existing investigation by a leading law enforcement agency, as well as other issues. Although presidents have occasionally clashed with FBI directors, Comey's dismissal was only the second time that a president has dismissed an FBI director. The only other occasion was under "dramatically different circumstances": in 1993 President Bill Clinton fired FBI Director William S. Sessions after a Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility report—published under Clinton's predecessor, George H. W. Bush—accused Sessions of tax evasion and other ethical lapses.
Before becoming FBI director, Comey, a Republican, served in the George W. Bush administration as deputy attorney general. He was appointed FBI director by President Barack Obama, and that nomination drew broad bipartisan support. Comey was confirmed by the Senate in 2013 by vote of 93-1. At the time of his firing in May 2017, Comey was four years into his ten-year term as FBI director.
Comey sought to insulate the FBI from politics, but beginning in 2015 the Bureau became embroiled in investigation that affected the 2016 presidential election. In March 2015, it came to light that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had used a private e-mail server for her work as Secretary of State under President Barack Obama. The 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 complained because the second investigation did not yield a prosecution.
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 Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections 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. News media reported that Comey requested additional personnel from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to expand the probe into Russian interference into the presidential election, but this was later denied by Andrew McCabe during his testimony to Congress on May 11.
On May 9, 2017, President Trump sent a termination letter to James Comey:
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
On 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 "recommendations" to Trump the following day, and Trump then formally dismissed Comey, saying he was doing so on their recommendation — although Trump said on May 11 that he would have fired Comey irrespective of any recommendation from the Justice Department.
Rosenstein's memorandum presented critical quotes from several former attorneys general in previously published op-eds, Rosenstein concluded that their "nearly unanimous opinions" was Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation was "wrong." In his memo Rosenstein asserts that the FBI must have "a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them." He ends with an argument against keeping Comey as FBI director, on the grounds that he was given an opportunity to "admit his errors" but that there is no hope that he will "implement the necessary corrective actions." Rosenstein also 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, were in conflict with longstanding FBI practice. Comey had previously defended his extraordinary action, saying that Attorney General Loretta Lynch had a conflict of interest, but 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.
Sessions, in his letter to Trump, also cited Rosenstein's memo as the reason for his own recommendation. In the dismissal letter, Trump cited the recommendations by Sessions and Rosenstein as the reason for Comey's dismissal.
It was noted that Sessions made the recommendation despite the fact that he had in March 2017 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.
On May 9, a statement by the White House claimed that Comey "lost the support" of "rank and file" FBI employees, saying that the President had no choice but to dismiss him. However, FBI agents "flatly rejected" this assertion, saying that Comey was in fact relatively well-liked and admired within FBI. In testimony given to the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 11, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe contradicted the White House's claim that Comey had lost the confidence of the FBI rank-and-file.
Observers were suspicious of the timing of the dismissal, which occurred just a few days after Comey reportedly requested additional resources to step up the Russia investigation; however the Justice Department denied that such a request was made. In an interview with Lester Holt of NBC News, Trump contradicted other statements from White House officials, by stating that he fired Comey due also to how he was handling the Russia investigation, while saying that there was no proof Russia was behind any election interference. Generally speaking, the timing of the dismissal was a main point of contention given the ongoing Russia investigation, whereas Comey's suitabilty for the job was not as great an issue as the timing; many Democrats had previously called for Comey's resignation or doubted his credibility.
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 who 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 reason for 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 Comey associates interviewed by The New York Times, Associated Press, and CBS News, Trump had asked Comey in January to pledge his loyalty to him, and Comey declined to make this pledge, saying that he would give him "honesty" and what Trump called "honest loyalty". Trump denied that he asked Comey for his loyalty, but says such a discussion would not necessarily have been inappropriate. According to sources, this discussion about loyalty was one reason why Trump wanted to replace Comey with a new 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." Prior to the firing, senior White House officials had made inquiries to intelligence officials, such as "Can we ask [Comey] to shut down the investigation? Are you able to assist in this matter?"
The private dinner during which Trump allegedly asked Comey for an "assurance of personal loyalty" was on January 27, the day after acting Attorney General Sally Yates briefed White House Counsel Donald McGahn on the FBI investigation of National Security Advisor Flynn's contacts with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, and three days after FBI agents had interviewed Flynn. Upon hearing from Yates on January 26, McGahn "immediately" briefed the president and a small group of senior advisors. Comey's invitation to dine with Trump "was a last minute thing," coming either on the 26th or the 27th, according to a former FBI official close to Comey.
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 own decision. He connected his decision to the Russian 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 said, "[Comey] was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off." The White House officially stated that firing Comey was a step in letting the probe into Russian election interference "come to its conclusion with integrity". White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders expressed the hope that firing Comey would help bring the Russia investigation to an end. On May 18, Rosenstein told members of the Senate that he wrote the dismissal memo while knowing that Trump had already decided to fire Comey.
On 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, "with some exceptions". The law firm itself turned out to have "deep ties" to Russia, and had even been selected as "Russia Law Firm of 2016". No evidence was provided in the letter itself, such as tax returns. The 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 had a letter delivered to the FBI terminating Director Comey. Comey was giving a speech to agents at the Los Angeles Field Office at the time and learned of the termination through televised news media reports; sources said he was surprised and caught off guard by the termination. Comey immediately departed for Washington, D.C., and was forced to cancel his scheduled speech that night at an FBI recruitment event.
News commentators 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". Among the two reporters noted for investigating the Watergate scandal, Bob Woodward said that "there is an immense amount of smoke" but that comparisons of the Comey dismissal to Watergate were premature, while Carl Bernstein said that the firing of an FBI director overseeing an active investigation was a "potentially more dangerous situation than Watergate."
The New York Times' Editorial Board 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 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 criticisms from Democratic leaders, some Republican leaders also 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 was 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".
Trump's assertion in the termination letter that Comey had told him on three separate occasions that he (Trump) was not under investigation has been challenged. Fact checkers reported that while they have no way of knowing what Comey may have told Trump privately, no such assertion is on the public record, and the White House declined to provide any more detail. According to The Washington Post, sources knowledgeable about the matter stated that Trump's assertion as well as other assertions made by Trump about events leading up to the dismissal were false.
In a Twitter post on May 12, Trump said "James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" Subsequent repeated questioning of Spicer as to the meaning of the post only received a reply that "the post speaks for itself". The post was taken as implying that Trump had "tapes" (quote marks were used by Trump) of conversations with Comey that support his assertion. The possibility of the existence of secret tapes created further pressure on Trump to make the tapes, and other evidence, available to investigators. The implied threat to Comey has itself been criticized as a possible threat to a witness and as a potential further attempted obstruction of justice, in addition to the dismissal itself. The implication of the disclosure of the existence of the Comey memos of conversations with Trump is still to be investigated.
Criticism of Trump's decision came immediately from various experts on governance and authoritarianism, and various politicians from across the political spectrum. Top Republican politicians supported the firing. Many elected officials called for a special prosecutor or independent commission to continue the investigation into Russia's influence on the election, while some Republicans stated that such a move would be premature.
On May 10, 2017, Comey sent a farewell letter to the FBI and his friends:
I have long believed that a President can fire an FBI Director for any reason, or for no reason at all. I'm not going to spend time on the decision or the way it was executed. I hope you won't either. It is done, and I will be fine, although I will miss you and the mission deeply.
I have said to you before that, in times of turbulence, the American people should see the FBI as a rock of competence, honesty, and independence. What makes leaving the FBI hard is the nature and quality of its people, who together make it that rock for America.
It is very hard to leave a group of people who are committed only to doing the right thing. My hope is that you will continue to live our values and the mission of protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution. If you do that, you too will be sad when you leave, and the American people will be safer.
Working with you has been one of the great joys of my life. Thank you for that gift.
After Comey's dismissal, FBI Deputy Director Andrew G. McCabe became the acting FBI Director. It was reported that eight people were being interviewed to succeed Comey: Senator John Cornyn of Texas, former Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Alice S. Fisher, New York Court of Appeals judge Michael Garcia, FBI Richmond Division director Adam S. Lee, Virginia federal district judge Henry E. Hudson, former Homeland Security Advisor Frances Townsend, former House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence chair Mike Rogers, and McCabe himself. Others have been speculated on.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scheduled to interview the candidates and give his recommendation of the next director to Donald Trump.
In an oval office meeting the day after Comey's dismissal, Trump reportedly made a comment to visiting foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak about the firing: "I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job," adding "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off." The comments were recorded in official White House notes made during the meeting.
News reports indicated that President Trump continued to be surprised and frustrated by the reactions to Comey's termination, both from the political leadership and from the media. Immediately after Trump's termination announcement, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Sessions and other administration associates stated that Trump fired Comey solely on the recommendations of Sessions and Rosenstein. Subsequently, the White House shifted from this message to stating that the termination was planned from the beginning of the administration. Subsequently, the message shifted again. In an interview to Lester Holt of NBC News on May 12, 2017, Trump indicated that the dismissal 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 described Comey as a "showboat" and a "grandstander", while suggesting that the FBI had been "in turmoil". Trump stated that he had been planning to fire Comey regardless of recommendations.
Several Democratic Congress members – among them, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, and California Rep. Maxine Waters – and some commentators suggested that Trump's rationale for Comey's dismissal in the interview amounted to a de facto admission to obstruction of justice.
Administration officials struggled with messaging and media reports indicated frustration among the officials in trying to keep up with the President's thinking. Vice President Mike Pence, known to be particularly steady was reportedly rattled by the changing messaging as he attempted to support the President. According to media sources, morale within the White House plummeted in the days immediately following and the President isolated himself not only from the media but from his own staff. Interaction between the Press Secretary's office and the President was strained. Following the termination announcement, Sanders took over press briefings from Press Secretary Sean Spicer, ostensibly because Spicer had duties with the Navy Reserve. Spicer eventually resumed the briefings.
In a May 12 Twitter post, Trump appeared to threaten to release recordings of his discussions with Comey in the form of unidentified tapes, tweeting: "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!," a statement taken by many Democrats and commentators also as an attempt to intimidate Comey into not discussing details of the investigation during intelligence committee hearings. In another post later that morning, Trump also suggested that the White House might stop hosting the daily press briefings altogether, and that he would instead take over the communication role himself "for the sake of efficiency," which some media outlets took as him expressing disdain for criticism of the White House's communications staff's handling of messaging administration issues. When asked by reporters at that day's press briefing about Trump's claim of having taped conversations with Comey, Spicer refused to state if any tapes existed, or whether there is a recording system in the Oval Office. He stated that the tweet was not a warning or a threat, but just a statement of facts. When asked whether he has recordings in the Oval Office, Trump responded "Well, that I can't talk about. I won't talk about that." Trump refused to confirm or deny the existence of tapes when asked, but has stated that it falls under his right to hold private property and his executive privilege as the current President of the United States. This has been heavily disputed, as any recordings from the White House are government property under the Supreme Court decision United States v. Nixon, and must not be destroyed. On May 15, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request on all documents related to Comey's dismissal, which would include any Comey tapes that exist.
Comey wrote multiple memos concerning his interactions with President Trump and in one Trump attempted to persuade Comey to abort the investigation into Lieutenant General Flynn, who had resigned the previous day. Comey would record a detailed memo after every meeting, including phone calls, with President Donald Trump. One memo referred to a February 14, 2017 Oval Office meeting between Comey and Trump, in which, according to the memo, the president stated "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go." Comey made no commitments to Trump on the subject.
The Times reported that the memo, which is not classified, was part of a "paper trail" created by Comey to document "what he perceived as the president’s improper efforts to influence a continuing investigation". Comey shared the memo with "a very small circle of people at the FBI and Justice Department." Comey and other senior FBI officials perceived Trump's remarks "as an effort to influence the investigation, but they decided that they would try to keep the conversation secret — even from the F.B.I. agents working on the Russia investigation — so the details of the conversation would not affect the investigation."
Two individuals who read the memo told the Times that "Comey created similar memos — including some that are classified — about every phone call and meeting he had with the president." The Washington Post reported that two Comey associates who had seen Comey's memo described it as two pages long and highly detailed. The Times noted that contemporaneous notes created by FBI agents are frequently relied upon "in court as credible evidence of conversations."
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".
Among members of Congress:
Multiple Democratic members of Congress discussed an "impeachment clock" for Trump, saying that he was "moving" toward impeachment and raising the possibility of bringing forth articles of impeachment for obstruction of justice and criminal malfeasance if proof of illegal activity is found. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut stated in an interview: "It may well produce another United States v. Nixon on a subpoena that went to United States Supreme Court. It may well produce impeachment proceedings, although we're very far from that possibility."
Immediately after Comey's dismissal, many Democrats renewed their calls for the appointment of a special prosecutor to continue the investigation into Russia's influence on the election.
The White House continued to insist that no special prosecutor was necessary in the Russia investigation, instead giving its support to Deputy Attorney General Rod 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!"
On May 11, nineteen Democratic state attorneys general led by Maura Healey of Massachusetts, signed a letter asking Rosenstein to appoint an "independent special counsel" to investigate Russia's attempts to meddle in the United States presidential election. The Attorney General for the District of Columbia also signed the letter.
Trump released a statement from his law firm, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, saying that Trump has no income or loans in Russia—"with a few exceptions". The firm's statement was criticized because of its strong ties to Russia. The organization was also listed as "Russian Law Firm of the Year" in 2016. On May 12, the United States Office of Government Ethics released a statement that was widely seen as thinly veiled criticism of the President. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, demanded that Trump turn over any "Comey Tapes" made and called for a special prosecutor.
On May 17, Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the investigation into Russia's involvement in the 2016 election. On May 23, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice ethics experts announced they had declared Mueller ethically able to function as special counsel.
Comey was fired two days before he was scheduled to testify at a 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. Comey declined to testify at a closed session, indicating that he would be willing to testify at a public, open hearing. On May 17, Senate Intel panel asked Comey to testify publicly. Comey accepted the invitation and it will occur "at a date to be set sometime after Memorial Day" (May 29).
Comey 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.
A number of professors of law, political science and history have criticized the firing and these experts argue that Trump's action destabilizes democratic norms and the rule of law in the U.S. Some have argued that Trump's action creates a constitutional crisis. Parallels have been drawn with other leaders who have slowly eroded democratic norms in their countries, such as Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Hungary's Viktor Orbán; political science professor Sheri Berman said those leaders slowly "chipped away at democratic institutions, undermined civil society, and slowly increased their own power."
In a May 2017 essay published in the The Washington Post, Harvard constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe wrote: "The time has come for Congress to launch an impeachment investigation of President Trump for obstruction of justice." Tribe argued that Trump's conduct rose to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors" that are impeachable offenses under the Constitution. He added, "It will require serious commitment to constitutional principle, and courageous willingness to put devotion to the national interest above self-interest and party loyalty, for a Congress of the president's own party to initiate an impeachment inquiry."
Duke law professor and former federal prosecutor Samuel W. Buell said that Trump's attempt to quiet Comey by referencing secret tapes of their conversations in retaliation could be viewed as an effort to intimidate a witness to any future investigation on obstruction of justice.
GW Law professor Jonathan Turley, who participated in impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton, cautioned that the Comey memo is not a sufficient basis for impeachment, and raises as many questions about Comey's behavior as about Trump's.
Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith has argued that claims that Comey "grandstanded" or "politicized" the FBI probe into possible ties between Trump associates and Russia could not be substantiated. Goldsmith wrote, "the only thing Comey ever said publicly about the investigation into the Russia-DNC Hack-Trump Associates imbroglio was to confirm, with the approval of the Attorney General, its existence. To 'grandstand' is to 'play or act so as to impress onlookers.' To 'politicize' means to give something a 'political tone or character.' Comey was neither grandstanding nor politicizing. He was doing his job and following the direction of the Attorney General."
New York University law professor Ryan Goodman wrote, "if President Donald Trump orchestrated the decision to fire the Director of the FBI to subvert or undermine the integrity of investigations into the Trump campaign’s possible coordination with Russia, it may amount to an obstruction of justice."
Legal experts are divided as to whether Trump's alleged request that Comey end the investigation can be considered obstruction of justice. Jens David Ohlin of Cornell University Law School and Jonathan Turley of George Washington University have argued that the request does not neatly fit into any of the practices commonly considered to fall under the obstruction of justice statute. Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Julie O’Sullivan of the Georgetown University Law Center argued that it is hard to prove that Trump had an intent to obstruct the investigation. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz said that "it's a very, very high bar to get over obstruction of justice for a president." Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith noted that it was implausible to indict a sitting president, noting that "the remedy for a criminal violation would be impeachment" instead. Erwin Chereminsky of University of California, Irvine School of Law, have argued that it was obstruction of justice.
Noah Feldman of Harvard University noted that the alleged request could be grounds for impeachment. University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck said that it was reasonable for people to "start talking about obstruction". Harvard law professor Alex Whiting said that Trump's actions were "very close to obstruction of justice... but still isn't conclusive". Christopher Slobogin of Vanderbilt University Law School said that a "viable case" could be made but that it was weak. John Dean, former White House Counsel to Richard Nixon, called the memo about the private conversation with President Trump concerning the Flynn investigation a "smoking gun" and noted that "good intentions do not erase criminal intent".
Several Republican politicians and conservative journalists have asserted that Comey could be subject to legal jeopardy over his withholding the memos. Legal experts have criticized these assertions, with Harvard Law School professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz saying they are "total nonsense" and University of Texas School of Law professor Robert M. Chesney saying they are "completely uninformed".
Many media outlets continued to be highly critical of the move. Some commentators described Comey's firing by the Trump administration as a "Nixonian" act, comparing it to Richard Nixon's orders to three of his cabinet officials to fire Archibald Cox during the Watergate investigation; a number of commentators – including Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, former CBS News journalist Dan Rather, and former New Yorker editor Jeffrey Frank – accused the Trump administration of a cover-up by firing Comey with the intent to curtail the FBI's investigation out of fear of a possible discovery of the extent of Trump's alleged ties to Russia. 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 Comey's dismissal 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 warned 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. Some went so far as to decry 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 had left.
French daily Le Monde described the firing as a "coup de force" against the FBI. German magazines Der Spiegel and Bild drew parallels with Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre, with Der Spiegel saying that "few believe" that Comey was not fired for overseeing a criminal probe into possible ties between Trump associates and Russia. The Economist wrote in an editorial that Comey's firing "reflects terribly" on Trump and urged "principled Senate Republicans" to put country before party and establish "either an independent commission" similar to the 9/11 Commission, or a bipartisan select committee to investigate the Russia allegations, with either body to have "substantial investigatory resources" and subpoena power.
During comments to the press at a White House meeting on May 10, 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.
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