Why sack Comey now when Trump has been in office for four months? Was it in relation to his corrected testimony? Rosenstein’s report? Or something deeper at play?
Last week, US President Donald Trump has met the Russian ambassador and sacked the FBI Director in a move his critics have dubbed his “Watergate moment”. Meanwhile his spokesman, Sean Spicer, was forced to hide in the bushes and fend off a media ravenous for answers in what is rapidly becoming one of the most complex and intriguing political stories in years.
Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey raised troubling questions about the real motives for Comey’s ouster. One seemed to come close to being a threat against the dismissed FBI chief.
Some of the words and deeds may simply constitute ugly public optics. Others blow away long-established norms of presidential behaviour, and experts say they approach limits of legally permissible conduct. Establishing an actual criminal violation may be a long shot, though a lower threshold exists for impeachment proceedings for what the Constitution describes as high crimes and misdemeanors.
Here’s what you need to know about the latest drama unfolding in Washington.
Who is Comey and why is he sacked?
FBI Director James Comey was abruptly fired on Tuesday after the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, decided his role was no longer tenable.
The President said he would take their “clear recommendations” to remove him and search for a new leader for the job that is politically appointed for a 10-year term.
“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,” Trump said.
Is that really the reason?
Republicans and the White House claim the sacking came after Washington had lost confidence in Comey over his bungled handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails during the election.
Critics smell a rat and say it’s a politically motivated decision to Comey, after he admitted in March the FBI was conducting an investigation into the Trump team’s links to Russia.
Was it acceptable to fire Comey?
Though it happened only once before, when President Bill Clinton sacked William Sessions in 1993, there’s no question that the president is empowered to fire an FBI director before the conclusion of his or her 10-year term.
The initial White House rationale was that Trump acted on the recommendation of the Justice Department’s top two officials. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein produced a memo that cited as justification Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation and his insistence that he would have done things the same way if he had another opportunity.
The explanation rapidly shifted when Trump told NBC News he had long wanted to fire Comey, calling him a “showboat.” The president and White House officials have also professed frustration with an investigation into possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign, which Comey as FBI director was leading.
What happened with the emails again?
The email debacle dates back to the campaign when Comey was in charge of an investigation over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server at home for State Department emails. In July last year, he said she was “extremely careless” in handling classified material, but “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring a case against her.
However the issue would not go away and in October, 11 days before the vote, Comey shocked Congress by stating the FBI had found new emails on the laptop of Hillary Clinton’s top aide, Huma Abedin’s husband — disgraced Congressman Anthony Wiener.
A week later, Comey said the new emails had “not changed our conclusions” and Clinton should not be charged. Trump accused the system of being “rigged” while crowds at his rallies shouted “lock her up”.
Russian meddling as Trump became president
Meanwhile, Trump was elected and US intelligence agencies continued working on Russian interference in the election. Once Trump was in the White House, Comey briefed him along with three other intelligence bosses, who said they believed Russia interfered in the campaign.
In February, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned after lying about his connections to Russia in a move that added to general speculation about links between the Trump administration and Russia.
In March, Comey testified to Congress and confirmed an FBI investigation was underway. He also shut down Trump’s claim he was “wiretapped” by President Obama, saying there was “no evidence” of that.
The last straw
In May, Comey testified again, saying he handled the two investigations into the Trump and Clinton camps equally and had to “do the right thing” without thinking about political consequences.
He later corrected a statement about “hundreds of thousands of emails” being sent from Abedin’s account, saying it was actually only a small number and others were automatically backed up. Later that day, he found out he was sacked via live TV reports. Press Secretary Sean Spicer dodged reporters and appeared not to know what is going on.
What does it all mean?
For now, that depends on your political point of view. Trump supporters claim Comey was a bungler who needed to go to restore faith in the system. Critics say it was an audacious move by Trump to take out the man investigating him.
What remains unclear is whether Rod Rosenstein was asked by Trump to do an assessment on Comey’s position or whether he did it independently.
We also don’t know what will become of the FBI investigation into Russian collusion with Trump team officials and whose remit it will fall under. Attorney General Jeff Sessions previously recused himself from any involvement in the investigation after having been found to have lied under oath about his own links with Russia.
Finally, why sack Comey now when Trump has been in office for four months? Was it in relation to his corrected testimony? Rosenstein’s report? Or something deeper at play?
Only time will tell.
Sources: AP, news.com.au