The 5-Minute Fix: Why did Trump fire FBI Director Comey?

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At the heart of the political fallout from President Trump’s surprise decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey on Tuesday night is why he did it now. Two diverging narratives are emerging: The official one is that Trump fired Comey because the FBI botched its investigation into Hillary Clinton emails. A narrative being driven by the left is that Trump fired Comey because Comey was leading an investigation into whether Trump campaign associates helped Russia meddle in the U.S. election. FBI Director James B. Comey on Capitol Hill in July. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP) Let’s walk through both, using what we know — and don’t know — so far: Reason No. 1: Trump fired Comey because Hillary Clinton Evidence for this: Trump says this is why he did it. Newly installed Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein wrote a letter criticizing Comey’s leadership, especially when the FBI was investigating last year whether Clinton should be charged for a crime for sharing classified information via her private email. (On Monday, the world learned Comey misstated key facts to Congress about why he restarted the investigation 11 days before the election.) Trump thought the DOJ’s criticism was grounds for firing: “I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau” he told Comey. Evidence against: Pinning Comey’s firing on Clinton raises more questions than it answers.

  • The Justice Department’s case against Comey feels flimsy and rushed. The Fix’s Aaron Blake: “[I]t makes the case for Comey’s ouster using a slew of newspaper quotes and op-eds from former law enforcement officials. The letter doesn’t actually add much to the public record or suggest extensive behind-the-scenes fact-gathering; it’s basically a summary anyone could have written in an afternoon.” (Blake dissects nearly every word of this all-important letter here.)
  • Trump could have fired Comey at any time since being inaugurated. Why now?
  • When Comey re-upped Clinton’s emails 11 days before the election, Trump said he thought the FBI was doing a “good job” investigating Clinton. Now he says Comey “was not doing a good job.” What changed his mind?

Reason No. 2: Trump fired Comey because the FBI was investigating his campaign’s connections to Russia Let’s start with evidence against this: We have no concrete evidence this is true. In fact, the White House flatly denies this: “Absolutely not,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on MSNBC.   Evidence for: Again, we go back to the timing: Why did Trump fire Comey now? The White House has yet to give an answer — press secretary Sean Spicer literally hid from reporters in White House bushes on Tuesday night to delay talking to them. White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks to reporters outside the White House on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post) Adding to the terrible optics for the White House, last week Comey asked for more resources from the Department of Justice to continue his Russia investigation, reports The Post’s Ashley Parker. (Though the DOJ’s spokeswoman says that’s “totally false.”) Finally, The Fix’s Blake surveyed former Justice Department officials who were mentioned in the letter as critical of Comey and found this: “Precisely none of them are standing up for Trump and his decision to fire Comey.”

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That means the linchpin of Comey’s firing — lots of in-the-know people thought he was doing a bad job — isn’t as strong as the White House is making it out to be. What happens to the Trump-Russia investigation? White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway holds up a copy of the firing letter Trump had sent to Comey (Alex Wong/Getty Images) There are actually a few investigations going on. Let’s take them one by one. The FBI’s investigation: We don’t know whether it will continue or whether Comey’s successor will see the need to continue it. The Senate and House intelligence committees’ investigations: They’re still on, but leaders say they’re slowed down now that they can’t work with Comey. (The Senate has asked Comey to testify Tuesday; it’s unclear if he will, now or ever. But he certainly can.) Comey testifying in July. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP) An independent investigation or special prosecutor: This has not been happening, nor is it likely to happen, despite Democrats’ demands to have Congress start one. Senate Republicans are skeptical of why Trump fired Comey, but only one — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — has agreed with Democrats that Washington needs a more independent investigation. And since Republicans control a majority of Congress in both chambers, supporters of an independent investigation will need a lot more support than they have now. Keep track of where your GOP senator stands. What is a special prosecutor anyway? Documents from the Ken Starr investigation are unloaded, circa 1998. (The Washington Post) It’s someone, usually outside the confines of government, who has wide latitude to investigate potential wrongdoing in the government and, if need be, charge people with crimes. Congress can appoint a special prosecutor. So can the Trump administration. The most recent famous example of a special prosecutor is Kenneth Starr, a lawyer who was chosen to investigate President Bill Clinton’s real estate investments and wound up uncovering the president’s affair with a White House intern. Protesters outside the White House on Wednesday. (Reuters) Congress can also set up a special congressional committee dedicated to investigating Russia meddling. Or it could set up an independent commission, usually made up of public figures who aren’t sitting members of Congress, to investigate and, if it finds any wrongdoing, recommend the government prosecutes. No form of an independent investigation seems likely right now. There are many questions in Washington about why Trump fired Comey, but not enough, it seems, to persuade Republicans in Congress that it’s time to put an extra check on Trump. This eyeroll tho …
 
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