US President Donald Trump today fired FBI director James Comey.
Comey's agents were probing people associated with the TV celebrity's presidential campaign for any links or collusion with Russian officials – after it emerged the Kremlin had instructed hackers to swing the White House race in Trump's favor.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from the Russian investigation because he twice met Russia's ambassador to the US and conveniently forgot to tell Congress about it, recommended Trump fire Comey. This afternoon, the President pulled the trigger.
So to recap: Trump sacked the cop overseeing an investigation into Trump's aides at the suggestion of a guy too close to that investigation. Perfectly normal, reasonable governance.
"The FBI is one of our nation's most cherished and respected institutions, and today will mark a new beginning for our crown jewel of law enforcement," said the White House spokesman.
Trump, best known for telling people "you're fired" on telly, wrote to Comey today, telling him Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had recommended the FBI boss be dismissed. Trump said he had accepted their advice, and Comey should leave immediately.
"While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgement of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau," Trump wrote.
So what exactly was the problem the Department of Justice had with Comey? According to Rosenstein, it was the handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server while she was Secretary of State – specifically Comey's announcement that he saw no reason to prosecute her. Rosenstein thought Comey had gone too easy on Hillary, that he had let her off the hook by overriding prosecutors, and that he must now pay the price, essentially.
"The director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors," Rosenstein wrote in a letter today.
"The director now defends his decision by asserting that he believed Attorney General Loretta Lynch had a conflict. But the FBI director is never empowered to supplant federal prosecutors and assume command of the Justice Department."
You can read all of today's official letters and statements here [PDF].
Quite why it has taken the Department of Justice so long to come to this conclusion, given that the events occurred nearly nine months ago, isn't explained. In the meantime, speculation is running rampant as to possible reasons for the surprise move.
Earlier today, it emerged Comey got his facts completely wrong while describing the probe into Clinton's email server. Last week, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Clinton aide Huma Abedin forwarded "hundreds and thousands" of Clinton's messages to her husband – disgraced willy-waver Anthony Weiner – but it turned out to be only a handful of missives.
Weiner was being investigated for allegedly sexting a 15-year-old girl; agents searching his devices figured some of the messages were relevant to the Clinton probe, but the number of emails was overblown by the FBI chief. Essentially, Comey tried to suggest Clinton's staff massively mishandled thousands of potentially sensitive messages – but it never happened.
Although the email probe fizzled out, Comey's public statements – particularly a flawed bombshell claiming hundreds of thousands of new messages may have been found, just before the November election – all helped nudge Trump into the White House. After all that hard work, Comey, a registered Republican for most of his life, was rewarded with the boot.
What's really going on
More than a few people see today's firing as a thinly veiled attempt to derail the investigation by the Feds into Russian election meddling, and the possibility that Trump's aides and associates may have colluded with Putin's pals to swing the victory in the Orange One's favor.
"It's time to move on," said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders on Fox News, letting the cat out of the bag. "It's time to focus on the things the American people care about."
Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in the middle of all this, on the Russia investigation: "It's time to move on" pic.twitter.com/aJYO0UljCv— Brandon Wall (@Walldo) May 10, 2017
It all sends a clear signal to the FBI: do not step out of line. That's not a healthy message amid an independent probe into a foreign power potentially colluding with campaign officials to subvert an election. That investigation is still ongoing, for now.
"This is Nixonian," said Senator Bob Casey (D-PA). "Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein must immediately appoint a special prosecutor to continue the Trump/Russia investigation."
Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) was even more unequivocal. Wyden said he was not a fan of Comey because of the FBI boss's demands for breakable encryption and his views on torture, but the manner of his dismissal raised serious questions.
"Donald Trump's decision to fire him now, in the midst of an investigation into Trump associates and their ties to Russia, is outrageous. Director Comey should be immediately called to testify in an open hearing about the status of the investigation into Russia and Trump associates at the time he was fired," Wyden said.
"There can be no question that a fully independent special counsel must be appointed to lead this investigation. At this point, no one in Trump's chain of command can be trusted to carry out an impartial investigation. The president would do well to remember that in America, the truth always comes out."
On the right of the political spectrum, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) – who is no fan of Trump – praised the decision. "Given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well. I know this was a difficult decision for all concerned. I appreciate director Comey's service to our nation in a variety of roles."
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) was less complimentary. "While the President has the legal authority to remove the director of the FBI, I am disappointed in the President's decision to remove James Comey from office," he said in a statement.
"James Comey is a man of honor and integrity, and he has led the FBI well in extraordinary circumstances. I have long called for a special congressional committee to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 elections. The president's decision to remove the FBI director only confirms the need and urgency of such a committee."
Meanwhile, Lawfare's Benjamin Wittes and Susan Hennessey described the sacking of Comey as a "nightmare scenario," because the top Fed was "the one man who could stand up" to Trump. "One of the biggest dangers of Comey’s firing is that Trump might actually get away with it, ironically, because of Comey’s unpopularity among Democrats and on the political left," the legal experts wrote.
We also note that Sessions, as Attorney General, gets to nominate the replacement FBI chief.
Comey is due to testify in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday to discuss national security threats. He learned of his fate today while giving a speech to FBI staffers at a field office in Los Angeles, California. Turning around mid-talk, he looked up at TVs hanging behind him, and saw news headlines announcing he had been terminated. ®