If US president, Donald Trump, thinks sacking his FBI director, James Comey, will stop the intelligence leaks against his administration, he can think again. If anything, they are likely to get worse. The sacking may well have sent shock waves around Washington. But the investigation into allegations of Russian interference will continue, no matter how many intelligence officials get fired by the president.
Comey is just the second FBI director to be sacked in the Bureau’s history. In 1993, William Sessions was removed following “serious deficiencies in judgment” and allegations that he abused his position.
Trump and the White House justified the sacking by citing the attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, and his deputy, Rod Ronstein, over Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails (a claim that sparked derision from Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill). Sessions wrote: “a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI”. In his first public comments on Comey, Trump said believed he “wasn’t doing a good job”. Essentially, Comey had lost the confidence of policymakers.
But the sacking has prompted calls that the Trump administration was trying to stop or impede the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s alleged hijacking of the presidential election and possible links between Moscow and Trump’s team. The Senate’s minority leader, Chuck Schumer, called for an independent investigation to claims of Russian involvement, while Mark Warner on the Senate’s Intelligence Committee described the move as “outrageous” comparing Trump’s actions with those of Richard Nixon. Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” – the sacking of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox – was a move that fatally undermined him and hastened his downfall.
As always, it’s hard to get beyond partisan views and get to the truth. Comey had certainly made enemies in both Democrat and Republican camps. In July 2016, Republicans were angry with his clearing of Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information through a private email server.
And, despite their support for him following his sacking, he had also alienated many Democrats. Comey’s announcement that the probe into Clinton’s emails had reopened – just days before election day – was cited as having an impact on the race for the White House. Just last week, Clinton even claimed Comey’s intervention cost her the election.
Trump’s relationship with Comey has undergone a remarkable volte-face. The FBI director received glowing praise in the presidential campaign, staying on following Trump’s win. Yet the relationship was increasingly strained thanks to the Russian investigation.
Comey isn’t the first FBI director to cut a controversial figure but he seems to have angered all sides of the political spectrum – something intelligence officials need to avoid if they want to stay in a job. Comey is the latest in a long line of intelligence and security officials who’ve fallen foul of policymakers.
Famously, John McCone’s term as CIA director ended in his resignation, citing opposition to Lyndon Johnson’s policy on Vietnam. Attempting to tell “truth unto power” – the job of a top intelligence official – can be difficult. Making too many enemies can also get you sacked.
Repercussions and consequences
It’s important that policymakers have faith in those who serve them. Comey’s relationship with the Trump team was certainly tense. For all the talk of Watergate, it’s also clear that Trump hasn’t broken any laws. Yes, controversial, but sacking Comey long before the end of his ten-year term in office is within the rights of the president.
It’s also unlikely to end the investigation into the presidential election and Trump’s team, as Democrats fear. Just this week, the US Senate panel investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign issued a formal demand for Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, to provide documents to further the investigation. Flynn was forced to resign after failing to disclose meetings with Russian diplomats. Comey has also been asked to attend the Senate Intelligence Committee next week.
Whoever replaces Comey as the FBI’s director, his removal won’t end the investigation into possible links between Russia and the Trump campaign – at least in the short term. In a letter to his former colleagues in the FBI, Comey said he “long believed that a president can fire an FBI director for any reason, or for no reason at all”. The FBI is a “rock of competence, honesty and independence” committed to protecting “the American people and upholding the constitution”. The FBI’s counter-intelligence remit means it will continue to investigate the claims.
Comey’s sacking poisons further the already strained relationship with his intelligence community, opening up the possibility for yet more leaks to embarrass the administration. As the leaking of information on Mike Flynn makes clear, details of the Trump teams links to Russia, if true, will ultimately make it into the public eye with consequences for Trump. Democrats shouldn’t worry too much about cover-up – the truth will out.