As Mr. Rogers might have asked, “Can you spell ‘cover up’?”
FBI Director James Comey was leading the most important investigation into the Trump administration’s Russian connections. Now he’s been fired. Historians may come to call Trump’s move the “Tuesday afternoon massacre,” similar in many ways to Nixon’s “Saturday night massacre” that eventually led to his resignation.
Trump will get to handpick Comey’s replacement, who will surely ignore the Trump administration’s corruption, conflicts-of-interest, and misuse of the White House to enrich the president and his family.
We now face a constitutional crisis. Will Trump get away with it? The growing demand for Congress to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Trump’s Russian ties, independent of his own Department of Justice and his next FBI director, suggests that the American people aren’t as stupid or gullible as he thinks.
It may have to wait until after November 2018. But if the Democrats take back the House – with the power to undertake an honest investigation of Trump’s Russian connections and to conduct impeachment proceedings – Trump might wind up being the second president, after Nixon, to resign from office.
Trump wants us to believe that he fired Comey for his handling (or mishandling) of Clinton’s emails. That is preposterous. Trump owes his election to Comey, whose comments during the campaign cast a shadow over Clinton. Until recently, Trump had praised Comey. What changed? Trump clearly sacked Comey because of his aggressive investigation into Trump’s Russian ties.
The mainstream media may be obligated to allow Trump to provide his own justification for firing Comey, but so far they haven’t found any ordinary American willing to be quoted saying that he or she believes Trump’s explanation.
Trump’s official justification for telling Comey “you’re fired” is his handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. On Tuesday, the White House issued the following statement: “President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”
Trump made public his letter to Comey stating that he “concur[s] with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.” In the letter, Trump insists that the firing is not related to the FBI’s current investigation into the ties to Russia of Trump’s campaign operatives and his White House advisors.
This is an obvious and blatant falsehood, but no major newspaper so far has used the word “lie” in a headline or story to describe Trump’s statement. The media’s failure to call his lie a lie is particularly troublesome because since Trump’s inauguration, the New York Times, Washington Post, and other major papers have, for the first time in modern memory, used that word to describe the president’s comments about the size of the inauguration crowd, how “voter fraud” deprived him of a popular-vote majority, and how Obama wiretapped Trump Tower.
Every political analyst who has sought to explain Trump’s victory has given considerable weight to Comey’s role in undermining Clinton’s presidential campaign by raising the specter that she had mishandled her private emails while she was Secretary of State, leading to a potential national security risk. Wittingly or unwittingly, Comey helped Trump beat Hillary Clinton last November.
Last July 5, in the middle of the presidential campaign, Comey took the unprecedented step of publicly announcing that Clinton had been “extremely careless” in using a private email address and server.
As the New York Times reported at the time, Comey, “raised questions about her judgment, contradicted statements she has made about her email practices, said it was possible that hostile foreign governments had gained access to her account, and declared that a person still employed by the government — Mrs. Clinton left the State Department in 2013 — could have faced disciplinary action for doing what she did.”
Although Comey declined to recommend criminal charges against Clinton, his comments threw the Clinton campaign for a loop and gave Trump a powerful talking point to undermine Clinton’s credibility. From then on, his call to “lock her up” became a central theme of his campaign rallies.
Then, on October 28, just a week before the presidential election, Comey wrote a letter to Congress announcing that he was re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s emails after investigators discovered additional emails on a computer belonging to former Congressman Anthony D. Weiner, the estranged husband of Clinton’s closest aide, Huma Abedin. In his letter, Comey said that the FBI would review the emails to determine if they improperly contained classified information. Even though his FBI staff hadn’t even examined those emails, Comey nevertheless claimed that they “appear to be pertinent.”
At the time, Clinton was still leading Trump is most polls and most predictions of the Electoral College count, but Comey’s letter was the nail in the Clinton campaign coffin. It put Clinton on the defensive, allowed Trump to attack her with what appeared to be the FBI’s seal of approval, and contributed to Trump’s victory.
On Sunday, November 6, two days before the election, Comey dropped another bombshell. He did an about-face, telling Congress that a review of the additional emails on Clinton’s server found no evidence of illegal activity and that Clinton should not face criminal charges, thus exonerating her.
But by then it was too late. The tide had irrevocably turned against Clinton.
Trump cast doubt on the FBI's handling of the matter. At a rally that day in Michigan, he said: "You can't review 650,000 new emails in eight days. You can't do it, folks." He added: “Hillary Clinton is guilty. She knows it, the FBI knows it, the people know it, and now it's up to the American people to deliver justice at the ballot box on November 8."
The media reported and broadcast Trump’s bombastic comments, providing an echo chamber that diverted attention away from Clinton’s efforts to regain her momentum.
Almost every journalist, political scientist, and political operative who has done an autopsy of the presidential contest has concluded that Comey’s October 28 letter was the major turning point that doomed Clinton’s campaign. Clinton herself echoed that conclusion in a speech a week after the election. “There are lots of reasons why an election like this is not successful,” she said, adding that “our analysis is that Comey’s letter raising doubts that were groundless, baseless, proven to be, stopped our momentum.” Comey, too, has acknowledged his role. Last week, he testified before Congress that he was “mildly nauseous” about influencing the outcome of the presidential election, although he stood by his actions.
After Trump’s inauguration, it appeared that the new president was grateful for the Comey boost and would let him keep his job. But soon the impulsive president began having second thoughts. He was particularly irked when, in testimony before Congress on March 20, Comey declined to confirm the president’s baseless claim that that President Barack Obama had spied on him with wiretaps on Trump Tower.
In that same testimony, Comey stated that the FBI was investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with a covert Russian operation to interfere with the election.
Clearly, Comey’s comment about the Trump-Russia investigation was the beginning of the end for the FBI director.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo claimed that Comey should be canned for, among other reasons, releasing “derogatory information” about Clinton. That’s a total turnabout from Trump’s claims, in a tweet last week, that Comey “was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!”
Trump has been in office for four months. Comey’s handling of Clinton’s email was well known to Trump, as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his staff, since the inauguration. If he wanted to fire Comey for this, he could have done it soon after taking office.
It is obvious that Trump decided to dismiss Comey because the FBI director was looking into Trump’s Russian connections. Trump has been extremely worried about that investigation. On Monday he took to Twitter to claim that “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax. When will this taxpayer funded charade end?”
The timing of Comey’s dismissal is clear evidence that Trump canned him because he was worried that Comey would aggressively pursue the Russian investigation which could discover evidence that would not only further discredit Trump in the public eye but also give Congress ammunition to begin impeachment proceedings.
Some news outlets have reported that Sessions was told last week to find a reason to can Comey. The emails are simply a convenient pretext.
That puts Sessions in an ethically and legally awkward position of recommending that Trump fire Comey in the middle of the Russian investigation after Sessions was forced to recuse himself from that investigation because he lied under oath about his own conversations with Russian officials.
Trump now gets to nominate someone else to take Comey’s place. The next FBI director will oversee the agency’s ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Trump doesn’t have to explicitly tell the next director to tread lightly on this investigation. It is, implicitly, part of the job description.
That connection has led many Democrats — and a few Republicans — to call for an independent special prosecutor to look into Trump’s Russia ties, to make sure the Sessions-led Justice Department (and next FBI director) doesn’t cover up what suddenly seems like the biggest scandal facing Trump.
Already, many Americans are discussing the eerie parallels between Trump’s Russian ties scandal and Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.
By 1973, Americans were consumed by the growing controversy over the break-in the previous year by Nixon operatives of the Democratic National Committee's offices at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. The Democrats in Congress, as well as some moderate Republicans, were calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the break-in and whether Nixon had covered it up. The Senate Judiciary Committee made it clear that it would not confirm Nixon’s nominee for Attorney General, Secretary of Defense Elliott Richardson, unless Richardson agreed to name an independent special prosecutor. Richard agreed and named Harvard Law School professor Archibald Cox to the job.
Nixon became increasingly worried about Cox’s investigation. In October 1973, the president ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and then resigned. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to sack Cox. He, too, refused. Nixon then asked Solicitor General Robert Bork (third in line at the Justice Department) to do the deed and Bork agreed.
Those events, which would become known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," led to Nixon’s downfall. Within a few days, about 450,000 telegrams and cables reached the White House and Congress – a record number – calling for Nixon to resign or Congress to impeach him. A growing number of Republicans in Congress jumped on the bandwagon. Congressman John Anderson, chair of the House Republican Conference, predicted that "impeachment resolutions are going to be raining down like hailstorms." Outside the White House, marchers held signs saying "Honk for Impeachment." House Speaker Carl Albert, an Oklahoma Democrat, told the Judiciary Committee to start the impeachment process. Cong. Gerald Ford, the Republican House leader, agreed. (Nixon would soon appoint Ford to the vacant Vice President position).
Public outrage and the threat of almost certain impeachment led Nixon to resign on August 9, 1974, the first and still the only sitting president to do so.
But the unfolding scandal over his Russian ties could eventually lead Trump to follow in Nixon’s footsteps. If the Democrats win a majority of seats in the House next November – a real possibility – they will have the power to conduct their own investigation in the Trump-Russian connection, obtain Trump’s tax returns to uncover his web of business ties, and begin impeachment proceedings.
Faced with that reality -- along with his historically low popularity ratings and his humiliation over his inability to carry out his campaign promises – Trump could decide to find an excuse to quit. Most likely, he will claim that he’s leaving office for “health reasons.” But that would be a lie, like so many of his statements, including his explanation that he fired Comey for mishandling the investigation of Clinton’s emails.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books).