Dismissal of James Comey
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James Comey, the 7th 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.
Trump dismissed Comey by way of a termination letter, in which he said the dismissal was recommended by the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General. But Trump soon stated that he had intended to fire Comey regardless of any recommendation. Subsequently, Trump criticized Comey's leadership and credibility at the FBI. He then said he believed dismissing Comey would relieve pressure he had felt from the Russia investigation, which he called a "witch hunt". Trump's advisers have said that he was extremely frustrated that Comey would not publicly say that Trump was not under investigation.
Shortly after his termination, Comey asked a friend to quote excerpts to the press of a memo he had written while FBI Director, recounting a private conversation with Trump in February 2017. According to Comey, Trump had asked him to "let go" of potential charges against former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. In light of the dismissal, the memo, and Comey's testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2017, several media figures, political opponents and legal scholars said that Trump's acts could be construed as obstruction of justice, while others said his actions did not rise to that level.
Following Comey's dismissal, Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the investigation into Russian meddling and related issues that Comey had supervised during his tenure.
- 1 Background
- 2 The dismissal
- 3 Post-dismissal
- 4 FBI investigation of Trump
- 5 Reactions from Congress
- 6 Succession
- 7 Commentary
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 External links
The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is appointed by the President and, since 1972, confirmed by the Senate. Since 1976, the director's term has been limited to ten years, "an unusually long tenure that Congress established to insulate the director from political pressure." The term can be extended with the approval of the Senate. 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.
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.
During his tenure as FBI director, Comey emphasized the need for the FBI to be independent from politics and avoid the "political winds". 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 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.
Trump's dismissal of Comey on 9 May 2017, four years into Comey's ten-year term, 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.
In May, Comey gave additional testimony before the Senate regarding the Clinton e-mail investigation and the Russia investigation. News media reported that Comey requested additional personnel from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to expand the probe into the Russia investigation, 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
Reasons for dismissal
Based on recommendation of Attorney General
On May 8, 2017, Trump directed Attorney General Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein to make a case against Comey in writing. On Trump's direction, on May 9, Rosenstein prepared and delivered a memorandum to Sessions relating to Comey. Rosenstein's memorandum presented critical quotes from several former attorneys general in previously published op-eds, and 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. To Comey previous defence of his extraordinary action, saying that Attorney General Loretta Lynch had a conflict of interest, 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, cited Rosenstein's memo as the reason for his own recommendation that Comey be dismissed. In the dismissal letter, Trump cited the recommendations by Sessions and Rosenstein as the reason for Comey's dismissal.
Based on other reasons
Several other reasons were soon offered. On May 9, a statement by the White House claimed that Comey had "lost the support" of "rank and file" FBI employees, so 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 the 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, saying that Comey "enjoyed broad support within the FBI and does to this day." Comey, in his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, objected strongly to Trump's description of the FBI as "in disarray" and "poorly led". "The administration chose to defame me, and more importantly the FBI," Comey said. "Those were lies, plain and simple."
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". On May 11, Trump said that he was going to fire Comey irrespective of any recommendation from the Justice Department. 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. Rosenstein had been contemplating firing Comey for many months.
Within a few days, Trump and other White House officials directly linked the dismissal to the FBI's Russia investigation. During a May 10 meeting in the Oval Office with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Trump told the Russian officials "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job." He added. "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off....I’m not under investigation." The details of the meeting were reported on May 15. On May 11 Trump told Lester Holt in an NBC News interview, "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", while reiterating his belief that there was no proof Russia was behind any election interference. White House officials also 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.
Other reasons have been offered. Insider sources have claimed that Trump was furious at Comey for refusing during March to back up Trump's 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. On June 7, 2017, during an interview with MSNBC, House Speaker Paul Ryan stated that it's "obviously" inappropriate to the president ask to the FBI director for loyalty. 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?"
Announcement of dismissal
President Trump had the letter dismissing Comey delivered in a manila folder to FBI headquarters in Washington in the evening of Tuesday, May 9, and a press statement was made by Sean Spicer at the same time. Comey was in Los Angeles that day giving a speech to agents at the Los Angeles Field Office, and Comey learned of the termination through a news report being telecast while he was speaking. (Sources said he was surprised and caught off guard by the termination.) Comey immediately left for Washington, D.C., and cancelled another scheduled speech that night at an FBI recruitment event.
Timing of the dismissal
Observers were suspicious of the timing of the dismissal, given the ongoing Russia investigation. (Comey's suitability for the job was not as great an issue, with many Democrats having previously called for Comey's resignation or doubted his credibility.) In an interview with CNN, President Trump's Counselor Kellyanne Conway denied that Comey's dismissal was part of a White House cover-up of the Russia investigation. The dismissal took place 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. On May 9, before the dismissal, it was revealed that federal prosecutors issued grand jury subpoenas to Flynn's associates, representing a significant escalation in the FBI's Russia investigation.
Other events of May 9
On the same day, 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.
Media reports had cast doubt on the original 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.
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.
Senator Al Franken called Sessions' actions in recommending Comey's dismissal a breach by Sessions of his commitment in March 2017 to recuse himself from anything to do with the investigation into ties between Trump's team and Russia, as well as from the Clinton email controversy. Franken called Sessions' action a "complete betrayal" of his promise to recuse.
Immediate response from the White House regarding concerns from congressional leaders and the media was limited. White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told Tucker Carlson of Fox News that it was time to "move on" from accusations of collusion between Trump and Russia, but added that "Comey's firing would not impact the ongoing investigations": "You will have the same people that will be carrying it out to the Department of Justice. The process continues both, I believe, in the House and Senate committees, and I don't see any change or disruption there." 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, saying that Schumer "stated recently, 'I do not have confidence in him (James Comey) any longer.' Then acts so indignant" and that Blumenthal "devised one of the greatest military frauds in U.S. history".
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.
Reactions from within the FBI
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.
Messaging from the White House
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. In an interview with 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 members of Congress – 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 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, 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.
On June 9, in response to Comey's testimony the day before, Trump's lawyer threatened to file legal complaints against Comey for sharing his memo with Richman and the press. Kasowitz said he intends to file a complaint with the Inspector General of the Department of Justice, as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee, against Comey for revealing "privileged" information. However, the memo was not classified and Trump had not invoked executive privilege with regard to his discussions with Comey. Also, the Inspector General has limited jurisdiction since Comey no longer works for the Justice Department. Some commentators suggested the threat could amount to intimidation of a witness. On June 28 Bloomberg reported that Trump's attorneys are postponing the threatened complaint, although they still intend to file it eventually. The postponement is reportedly intended as a courtesy to Special Counsel Mueller and an attempt to back away from the White House's confrontational attitude toward him.
May 10 meeting with Russian officials
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.
Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary, was contacted by The New York Times, and he did not contest the accuracy of the statements by Trump to the Russians. A government official quoted by the newspaper said that Trump was using a negotiating tactic, creating "a sense of obligation with Russian officials".
FBI investigation of Trump
Assurances to Trump by Comey
In the Comey termination letter, Trump asserted that Comey had told him on three separate occasions that he (Trump) was not under investigation. The assertion has been challenged. Fact checkers reported that while they had no way of knowing what Comey may have told Trump privately, no such assertion was on the public record, and the White House declined to provide any more detail. According to a May 10 article in 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 the written opening statement for his June 8 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey said he had assured Trump on three separate occasions that he personally was not the subject of an FBI counterintelligence investigation. Comey said Trump repeatedly pressed for him to say so publicly, but Comey cautioned that might not be a good idea for legal reasons. Comey added that Trump's private comments urging him to drop the Flynn probe led him to tell his Justice Department colleagues they needed to be careful. Comey also indicated that he had prepared notes on each of his interactions with Trump and had arranged for them to be publicly released.
Trump's private lawyer Marc Kasowitz declared in a statement that Comey's testimony made Trump feel "completely and totally vindicated". However, on June 16 following newspaper reports that the special counsel is investigating him for obstruction of justice, Trump tweeted: "I am being investigated" and called the investigations a "witch hunt". Trump's lawyer later clarified that Trump has not been notified of any investigation.
Possible existence of recordings
In a Twitter post on May 12, Trump implied that he may have conversations with Comey on tape, saying, "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" The possibility of the existence of secret tapes created pressure on Trump to make any tapes and other evidence available to investigators. In subsequent interviews and White House briefings, Trump and his spokespersons have refused to confirm the existence of the 'tapes' or even to indicate the nature of these 'tapes'. In an interview with Fox News, Trump declined to comment on whether he has listening devices in the White House. Trump's top spokesman refused to comment on whether listening devices are active in the Oval Office or elsewhere.
In his June 8 testimony, Comey said "I've seen the tweet about tapes. Lordy, I hope there are tapes!" He added that he would consent to the release of any such recordings.
The possible existence of recordings had taken a life of its own, with Trump refusing to acknowledge their existence, and members of Congress, from both parties, calling on Trump on June 9 to say once and for all whether they exist, and others calling for them to be provided, by subpoena if necessary. The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), set June 23 as the deadline for the White House to hand over any tapes, if they exist, adding that if the White House did not comply with the deadline, he would move forward with subpoenas for the tapes.
On June 22, Trump tweeted:
I have 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.
Commentators noted that Trump's tweet merely denied personal involvement in the making of recordings and denied his present knowledge and present possession of said recordings. The tweet failed to deny, however, that recordings do or did exist, that Trump ever had past knowledge of their existence, or that they may have been made by a third party other than Trump whom Trump is or was aware of.
When asked to clarify the non-denial denial wording of Trump's tweet several hours later, Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that Trump's tweet was "extremely clear" and that she did "not have anything to add".
Questions raised for clarification on Trump's tweet centered principally around whether Trump previously had knowledge of said tapes having ever existed and whether he has simply removed himself from being privy to the knowledge of whether said tapes still exist; whether Trump currently has or ever had knowledge of a person or persons other than Trump having made said tapes or recordings; and whether Trump currently has or ever had knowledge of a person or persons other than Trump currently having or previously having had in their possession said tapes or recordings.
Schiff stated that Trump's tweet “raises as many questions as it answers," and that in any event, the tweet did not comply with the 23 June deadline, and that Schiff would move forward with subpoenas for the tapes, adding that “[r]egardless of whether the President intends his tweets to be an official reply to the House Intelligence Committee, the White House must respond in writing to our committee as to whether any tapes or recordings exist."
On June 23, in a letter to House and Senate Committees investigating the Russian interference, the White House copied and pasted Trump's non-denial denial tweet of the previous day in answer to their query. On June 29, in a joint statement, leaders of the US House Intelligence Committee, Republican Representative Mike Conaway and Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, said they had written to the White House to press it to comply fully with their June 9 request, adding "Today's letter from the committee makes clear that should the White House not respond fully, the committee will consider using compulsory process to ensure a satisfactory response".
The New York Times report of June 22 added, "Some legal experts have said that Mr. Trump’s threat could be used in an obstruction of justice case against him, since it could be interpreted as putting pressure on Mr. Comey not to discuss their conversations about the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation."
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February 14 meeting
One memo referred to an Oval Office meeting on February 14, 2017, during which Comey says Trump attempted to persuade him to abort the investigation into Michael Flynn. The meeting had begun as a broader national security briefing, the day after Trump had dismissed Flynn as National Security Advisor. Near the conclusion of the briefing, the President asked those in attendance other than Director Comey to leave the room — including Vice President Pence and Attorney General Sessions. He then reportedly said to Comey "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 White House responded to the allegations by stating that "the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn," and "this is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey."
Leaks to the press
The Comey memos were first mentioned in a May 16, 2017, New York Times article, published about a week after Trump had dismissed Comey as FBI director, and four days after he had implied on Twitter that his conversations with Comey may have been recorded. The report cited two people who read the memos to the Times reporter. The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post independently reported on the memos' existence.
In his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, Comey revealed that he had been the source, through a friend (later revealed to be Columbia Law School professor Daniel Richman), of the public revelation of his February 14 memo. He said he decided to make it public in hopes that it might "prompt the appointment of a special counsel". Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel the next day.
After the NYT report, leaders of the House Oversight Committee and the Intelligence Committee, and of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Judiciary Committee requested the production of all Comey memos, with a deadline of May 24. On May 25, the FBI said it was still reviewing the Committees' requests, in view of the appointment of the special counsel. To date,[when?] the Comey memos have still not been produced or released to the public.
The New York Times reported that Comey had created the memos as a "paper trail" 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."
In his June 8 testimony, Comey explained that he had documented his conversations with Trump because he "was honestly concerned he (Trump) might lie" about them. "I knew there might come a day when I might need a record of what happened," he said. The Washington Post reported that two Comey associates who had seen the 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."
Anonymous officials told The Hill that 4 of the 7 memos contained information deemed "secret" or "classified". Some memos were deliberately written without classified information so that they could be shared.
Trump's personal attorney Marc Kasowitz criticized Comey for leaking the contents of his memos to the press, saying that they were "unauthorized disclosures". University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck said that there was "no legal blowback" for Comey, unless "the memos involve 'information relating to the national defense'" or deprived "government of a 'thing of value'".
Pursuit of leakers
According to a Washington Post report, the memos also document Trump's criticism of the FBI for not pursuing leakers in the administration and his wish "to see reporters in jail". The report outraged journalists and free-speech groups, who likened the statement to intimidation tactics used by authoritarian regimes. The Committee to Protect Journalists and Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron were among those who criticized the statement.
Appointment of special counsel
The White House continued to insist that no special prosecutor was necessary in the Russia investigation, instead saying that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and the next FBI director could lead the investigation. 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, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, as acting Attorney General, appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. Within hours, according to White House sources, the Trump administration was looking to use an obscure ethics rule to slow down the investigation and undermine the special counsel. On May 23, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice ethics experts announced they had declared Mueller ethically able to function as special counsel. On June 3, Rosenstein said he would recuse himself from supervision of Mueller, if he were to become a subject in the investigation due to his role in Comey's dismissal.
Reactions from Congress
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:
- 138 Democrats, two independents (Senators Bernie Sanders and Angus King), and two Republicans (Representatives Mike Coffman and Tom McClintock), called for a special prosecutor, independent prosecutor, or an independent commission to examine ties between the Russian government and Trump's associates.
- 84 Democrats and five Republicans called for an independent investigation into Russian ties. For example, Republican Senator John McCain said "I have long called for a special congressional committee" while Democratic Representative Salud Carbajal stated, "anything less would imperil our democracy".
- 42 Republicans, and 8 Democrats, expressed "questions or concerns" about Comey's firing; examples of members of Congress in this group are Republican Senator Marco Rubio ("I do have questions"); Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski ("serious cause for concern"); Democratic Representative Marcia L. Fudge ("the American people deserve answers").
- 98 Republicans, but no Democrats, were neutral or supportive of Comey's firing.
- 141 Republicans and 11 Democrats did not release a statement.
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."
On May 10, 2017, the day after being fired by Trump, Comey was invited to testify before a closed session of the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 16, 2017. Comey declined to testify at a closed session, indicating that he would be willing to testify at a public, open hearing. On May 17, the Senate Intelligence Committee invited Comey to testify publicly. Comey accepted the invitation and testified on June 8.
On June 7, 2017 an advance copy of Comey's prepared congressional testimony was submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee. In it, he said that on February 14, 2017, the President attempted to persuade him to "let go" of any investigation into Michael Flynn. He clarified that "I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December. I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign." He added that Trump requested his personal loyalty, to which Comey replied he would give his "honest loyalty" to the President. Comey stated that, on three occasions, he volunteered to Trump that the latter was not personally under investigation. Comey stated that Trump requested that he publicly declare this so that his image could be improved, but Comey also stated that he did not respond to Trump's request with an explanation of why he would not do so; Comey testified that his primary reason for not publicly saying Trump was not under investigation was to avoid a "duty to correct" in the event Trump later became subject to investigation.
In his live testimony, Comey was asked why he thought he was fired and he replied, "I take the president at his word that I was fired because of the Russia investigation." He took strong exception to Trump's claims that he had fired Comey because the FBI was in "disarray" and "poorly led", saying "Those were lies, plain and simple." Comey also confirmed that the FBI investigations had not targeted Trump personally.
In June 9 and June 11 Twitter comments on Comey's testimony, Trump accused Comey of "so many false statements and lies" and "very cowardly" leaks but added that Comey's testimony had amounted to "total and complete vindication" of Trump. Later that day Trump held a brief news conference, during which he insisted that he did not ask Comey to end the investigation into Flynn and was willing to say so under oath. He twice dodged questions about whether there are tapes of White House conversations.
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. Several potential candidates had withdrawn from consideration.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions interviewed the candidates for FBI Director and gave his recommendation to Donald Trump on May 13. On June 7, 2017, on the day before Comey was to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, President Trump tweeted that he intended to nominate Christopher A. Wray as the new FBI Director. Trump had interviewed Wray for the position on May 30, according to Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Trump made Wray's formal nomination to the Senate on June 26. The Senate Judiciary Committee began confirmation hearings on July 12, and approved the nomination on July 20. The full Senate confirmed the appointment on August 1.
On May 17, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in his role as acting Attorney General (since Attorney General Sessions had recused himself), appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation, taking away that role from the FBI, and in effect from acting FBI Director McCabe and the incoming FBI Director. On June 3, Rosenstein said he would recuse himself from supervision of Mueller if he (Rosenstein) were to become a subject in the investigation due to his role in Comey's dismissal. In that event, the third senior officer in the Justice Department would take over the supervision of Mueller's investigation—namely, Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, who assumed the position on May 22, 2017, after being nominated by Trump on February 1 and confirmed by the Senate on May 18.
A number of professors of law, political science, and history have criticized the firing and 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 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."
Comey memos and 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".
Comey testimony and obstruction of justice
In Comey's June 8 testimony, he said it was not for him to say whether Trump's February 14 request amounted to obstruction of justice, adding "But that's a conclusion I'm sure the special counsel will work toward, to try and understand what the intention was there and whether that's an offense." Some legal experts have said that Comey's testimony advanced the argument that Trump attempted to obstruct justice in his dealings with then-FBI Director James Comey. Diane Marie Amann of University of Georgia, Paul Butler of Georgetown University, Brandon Garrett of University of Virginia, Lisa Kern Griffin of Duke University, Alexander Tsesis of Loyola University, and Alex Whiting of Harvard University said that a obstruction of justice case was advanced by the fact that Comey understood Trump's words as an order to drop an ongoing FBI investigation. Joshua Dressle of Ohio State University and Jimmy Gurulé of University of Notre Dame said after the testimony that "a prima facie case of obstruction of justice" had been established. Samuel Gross of University of Michigan and Dressle said that there were sufficient grounds to indict Trump for obstruction of justice were he not President, but that a sitting President cannot be indicted, only impeached. Samuel Buell of Duke University said, "Based on Comey's testimony, we know to a virtual certainty that the President is now under investigation for obstruction of justice." Mark Tushnet of Harvard University said that there are "lots of pieces of evidence that could go into making a criminal case and very little to weaken such a case but nothing that in itself shows criminal intent."
Former United States Attorney Preet Bharara said in a June 11, 2017 interview with ABC News, "there's absolutely evidence to begin a case" regarding obstruction of justice by Trump. Bharara went on to note, "No one knows right now whether there is a provable case of obstruction. [But] there's no basis to say there's no obstruction."
Many media outlets continued to be highly critical of the move. For many critics, the immediate worry was the integrity of the FBI's investigation into the Trump administration's ties to Russia. 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 special prosecutor 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, Benjamin Wittes writing in Lawfare had predicted a future firing of Comey, writing "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 dismissal, they reiterated their position, stating that Trump's firing of Comey "undermines the credibility of his own presidency" and implying that the reason given for it was probably a pretext, as Trump had previously praised Comey's handling of the Clinton investigation.
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. A few 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.
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President Trump on Thursday said he was thinking of 'this Russia thing with Trump' when he decided to fire FBI Director James B. Comey, who had been leading the counterintelligence investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election... Trump's account flatly contradicts the White House's initial account of how the president arrived at his decision, undercutting public denials by his aides that the move was influenced in any way by his growing fury with the ongoing Russia probe.
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Comey added fuel on Thursday to critics' accusations that the U.S. president engaged in obstruction of justice. ... Several legal experts said the conversation could be construed as an act of obstruction. ... Some legal experts said the president could say he was merely vouching for Flynn's character and voicing concerns about how the Russia probe was interfering with his ability to function in office.
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Earlier Thursday, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Comey firing may hasten the agency's investigation into Russian meddling. 'We want this to come to its conclusion, we want it to come to its conclusion with integrity,' she said, referring to the FBI's probe into Moscow's interference in last year's election. 'And we think that we've actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.'
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The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him. Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, Mr. Comey has recounted to others, he told Mr. Trump that he would always be honest with him, but that he was not 'reliable' in the conventional political sense ... Later in the dinner, Mr. Trump again said to Mr. Comey that he needed his loyalty. Mr. Comey again replied that he would give him 'honesty' and did not pledge his loyalty, according to the account of the conversation. But Mr. Trump pressed him on whether it would be 'honest loyalty.' 'You will have that,' Mr. Comey told his associates he responded.
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Soon after he was inaugurated, President Trump asked FBI Director James Comey to pledge his loyalty to him, a request that Comey turned down, CBS News' Pat Milton confirmed Thursday, citing a law enforcement source who was told the story by Comey. In January, Mr. Trump invited Comey to have dinner with him at the White House, and in the course of their conversation, the president asked Comey if he would pledge his loyalty to him. The FBI director declined, but he replied to the president that he would always be honest. Again during their dinner, Mr. Trump told Comey he needed his loyalty. And again, Comey responded that he would be honest, according to the source. Mr. Trump pressed Comey on whether it would be "honest loyalty." Comey said that he responded, "Yes, you will have that." He meant, said the source, that he would always be honest with the president.
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An associate of the fired FBI director confirmed Friday that Trump asked for Comey's loyalty during the private dinner. The associate with knowledge of the conversation confirmed an account of the conversation in The New York Times is accurate. During the dinner, Comey refused to pledge his loyalty and instead offered the president his honesty.
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BOB WOODWARD, THE WASHINGTON POST: ... But this is not yet Watergate. Not a clear crime on the Russian issue.... [I]n the case of Nixon, he had his former White House counsel, John Dean, for four days testifying that the president corruptly and illegally led the obstruction of justice and you have nothing comparable. Now, that doesn't mean, you know, we don't know where this is going to go. There is an immense amount of smoke.
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