Is anyone surprised that President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey? Well, yes — some are surprised he did it, and others are surprised it took so long.
How the mighty have fallen. In March, Comey was hailed as “the most powerful person in Washington.” But those who are tagged “most powerful” have a funny way of quickly being shown up, particularly when they serve at the pleasure of the president. In Comey’s case, his power supposedly was based on his ongoing investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election, an investigation that has turned up nothing of great importance, certainly nothing to substantiate charges of Russia “hacking the election.”
In fact, Comey had been a dead man walking for some time. He was a director without a constituency. He had tried to strike a balance in a sharply divided political environment and wound up alienating both sides. He had to go.
Democrats blame him for Hillary Clinton’s election loss. Just last week Hillary Clinton said that if the election were held Oct. 27, she would have been the president — that is, the day before Comey’s dramatic note to Congress that he had reopened the FBI’s investigation into her alleged mishandling of classified information through her bootleg email server.
Then two days before Election Day, Comey said “never mind.” The FBI had hastily reviewed the 49,000 potentially relevant emails it had found on a laptop owned by disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner, and nothing there changed its conclusions from the previous July when he had called out Clinton for lying but did not recommend prosecution.
Whether this roller coaster ride had an impact on the election is one question, but Comey’s seemingly erratic behavior so close to an election was quite another. I was at a meeting with some senior members of the law enforcement community when Comey backed off the investigation and they expressed utter bewilderment at what he was doing. It went beyond how this would affect Comey’s career or his reputation; he was potentially tarnishing the bureau itself. And for all this, Comey said he had no regrets.
Republicans have never bought into the story line that Comey cost Clinton the election. And they fault him for not recommending criminal prosecution of Clinton for her alleged misdeeds. But their main complaint was that he gave the Russia story more weight than it deserved. In March, Comey revealed that there had been an active counterintelligence investigation on “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
This was an unprecedented admission, and it might have been an attempt on Comey’s part to make it politically difficult to fire him. Clearly, not difficult enough. And while Comey said he had “no information that supports” the idea that President Trump had been “wiretapped,” the full nature of the surveillance that Trump’s campaign and administration have been subjected to has yet to be revealed.
The bottom line was that Comey repeatedly made himself the issue. His mandate was to enforce the law fairly and impartially. Instead, he appeared time and again to be gaming the system. A March poll showed that only 17% of Americans had a favorable opinion of Comey.
In Trump’s letter firing Comey, he said the FBI needed new leadership “that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission.” Fortunately, Comey’s poor approval did not rub off on the FBI itself. A February poll showed public trust in the FBI at 80%, making it one of the most trusted institutions in the country.
With James Comey gone, the FBI can find a director more worthy of the title.