After President Trump’s bombshell announcement Tuesday afternoon that he had fired FBI director James B. Comey, a decision he connected to the agency’s ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential campaign, the nation is at a crossroads. Either the Senate can insist on replacing Comey with a credible new leader who will continue its investigation and follow the evidence wherever it leads, or it can tacitly accept the president’s blatant effort to derail the inquiry.
That path is almost too ominous to contemplate. Presidents bending law enforcement to their will is the hallmark of undemocratic regimes.
Since last summer, Comey’s agency has been investigating a matter of grave national concern: whether Russian intelligence agencies colluded with members of the Trump campaign to boost his candidacy last year. Evidence of close contacts has mounted: Not only did Trump’s advisers include men with financial ties to Russia, but figures like former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the campaign.
It was none other than Sessions who on Tuesday recommended firing Comey. The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, also supported axing Comey. Rosenstein based his recommendation on the way Comey treated Hillary Clinton last year.
Comey’s mishandling of the Clinton e-mail investigation, and inappropriate public comments just before the election, were indeed troubling. They might even have provided a good reason to fire him back in January. Then, though, Trump decided with much fanfare to keep Comey in the job he had held since 2013.
The facts from last year haven’t changed, but Trump’s decision has. And whatever Rosenstein’s rationale, the president made it clear he had in mind something else completely as he sent Comey packing on Tuesday.
“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,” Trump wrote.
That sentence is likely to be parsed in days to come, and no FBI agent is dumb enough to miss its logic. It’s a formulation in which effectively leading the bureau is linked to not investigating the president.
Those words are the stuff obstruction of justice is made of.
As Washington took stock of the shocking news on Tuesday, Trump announced that he was beginning the search for a new FBI head. The nominee will require Senate confirmation, which is shaping up as a major test for the Senate. As recently as Monday, many senators still seemed to be in campaign mode when it came to the Russia probe, frittering away their time at the hearing to make cheap political points.
But the American system of checks and balances requires the legislative branch to rise to the occasion — and not behind closed doors, but in full view of the public, rank-and-file FBI agents, and the president.
Republican senators, especially, have been loath to criticize Trump in public. Some have been willing to play along with his diversionary tactics meant to muddy the Russia probe (trying to change the subject to press leaks, for instance). But now the burden is squarely on them to stand up for the integrity of the FBI and the Russia investigation. Anything less risks deepening what already looks like a travesty of justice.