According to the White House, Trump dismissed Comey because last year he’d treated Hillary Clinton unfairly during a probe into her past use of a private email server. That explanation doesn’t make much sense, given Trump’s previous comments on Comey’s handling of the matter. And many in Washington think he was actually let go over his leadership of an investigation into whether Trump campaign associates colluded with Moscow’s interference in last year’s election.
But as news of the firing broke, Grassley fell in line with the White House’s messaging.
“The handling of the Clinton email investigation is a clear example of how Comey’s decisions have called into question the trust and political independence of the FBI,” the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman said in a statement on Tuesday.
To those bothered by the optics of Trump’s decision to remove the man who was looking into possible collusion between Russian officials and Trump associates, Grassley offered a concise message:
“Suck it up and move on,” the senator said in a Wednesday interview with “Fox & Friends.”
Grassley, like Trump, had not previously expressed concern that Comey was too hard on Clinton. When Comey publicly lambasted her handling of classified information at a press conference in July of last year ― a move that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein cited this week as a reason for his loss of confidence in Comey ― Grassley’s main complaint was that the FBI director nonetheless failed to recommend criminal charges against Clinton. When Comey notified lawmakers days before the election that the FBI was examining newly discovered emails related to the Clinton probe ― another move that Rosenstein said was inappropriate ― Grassley said he welcomed the disclosure but wanted more details about the nature of the reopened investigation.
Grassley is not the only Republican giving cover to Trump’s sudden ouster of Comey. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have all defended the president’s decision. But most Republican lawmakers have taken a more cautious approach in commenting on Comey’s firing ― and several have challenged the move outright.
Unlike lawmakers in top congressional leadership positions who are expected to defend the party line, Grassley as a committee chair has been freer to cultivate a reputation as a fierce government watchdog who puts his oversight duties above partisanship.
“He’s an effective senator, and traditionally he’s also seen as more of a moderate. … He’s not Ted Cruz,” David Peterson, a professor of political science at Iowa State University, told The Atlantic last year. “He’s generally seen as more thoughtful, less of a partisan, less of an ideologue.”
In recent years, Grassley has attracted more attention for his efforts to block the confirmation of judges nominated by then-President Barack Obama than for his aggressive oversight posture. Last year, he refused to grant a hearing to Merrick Garland, the moderate judge whom Obama selected to serve on the Supreme Court. Back home in Iowa, state officials questioned Grassley’s brazenly partisan stand.
“Throughout your career, Chuck, you have been a fair-minded, common-sense consensus builder,” Joy Corning, a former Republican lieutenant governor, said in a HuffPost interview last year. “Refusing to fill the Supreme Court vacancy is none of those things.”
Given that Grassley may or may not run for re-election in 2022 (he’s 83 years old now) and that he has decent approval ratings, it’s not clear what he believes he would lose if he broke with Trump. Last year, The Atlantic posited that the senator wasn’t caving to party pressure ― that he had simply learned that “choosing party loyalty over bipartisanship turns out better in the long run.”
Grassley’s party loyalty certainly paid off for the Republicans in the Supreme Court gambit. Garland never got his hearing and the Senate confirmed Trump’s pick, Neil Gorsuch, in a vote largely along party lines.
Grassley’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.