The firing of FBI Director James Comey may have been a surprise to some, most particularly in the media, but there was a certain inevitability about it given the bureau’s clear inability to navigate the troubled political waters that developed early last summer and have continued ever since. The initial reaction that it may have been triggered by Comey’s recent maladroit comments regarding the Huma Abedin emails would appear to miss the mark as that issue was not raised either by Attorney General Jeff Sessions or by the White House in their written explanations of what had taken place and why.
The most widely accepted explanation for the firing is that it was carried out by the White House to disrupt the ongoing investigation into apparent Russian meddling into the U.S. presidential election and suggestions that there may have been collusion between some Trump campaign officials and the Russians. But that argument lacks credibility in that the action will have the opposite effect, energizing both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to agitate for an independent counsel to look into the issue. And FBI professionals on the investigative team certainly will not stop their work now that Comey is gone. As Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins put it, “The president didn’t fire the entire FBI. He fired the director of the FBI.” She added she had “every confidence” the investigation will continue apace.
The statements by the White House and Sessions cite two issues. The first is Comey’s unprofessional handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, where he first decided not to prosecute her over the mishandling of classified information and then subsequently revealed to the public that the investigation had been reopened shortly before the election, possibly influencing the outcome. This is a serious matter, as Comey broke with precedent by going public with details of bureau investigations that normally are considered confidential. One might argue that it is certainly an odd assertion for the White House to be making, as the reopening of the investigation undoubtedly helped Trump, but it perhaps should be seen as an attempt to create some kind of bipartisan consensus about Comey having overreached by exposing bureau activities that might well have remained secret.
The second issue raised by both Sessions and the White House is Comey’s inability to “effectively lead the Bureau” given what has occurred since last summer. That is a legitimate concern. When the Clinton investigation was shelved, there was considerable dissent in the bureau, with many among the rank-and-file believing that the egregious mishandling of classified information should have some consequences even if Comey was correct that a prosecution would not produce a conviction.
And the handling of “Russiagate” also angered some experienced agents who believed that the reliance on electronic surveillance and information derived from intelligence agencies was the wrong way to go. Some called for questioning the Trump-campaign suspects who had surfaced in the initial phases of the investigation, a move that was vetoed by Comey and his team. It would be safe to say that FBI morale plummeted as a result, with many junior and mid-level officers leaving their jobs to exploit their security clearances in the lucrative government contractor business.
There has been considerable smoke about both the Clinton emails and the allegations of Russian interference in last year’s election, but I suspect that there is relatively little fire. As Comey asserted, the attempt to convict a former secretary of state on charges of mishandling information without any ability to demonstrate intent would be a mistake and would ultimately fail. No additional investigation will change that reality.
As for the Russians, we are still waiting for the evidence demonstrating that Moscow intended to change the course of the U.S. election. Further investigation will likely not produce anything new, though it will undoubtedly result in considerable political spin to explain what we already know. It is unimaginable that Michael Flynn, for all his failings, agreed to work on behalf of Russian interests, while other names that have surfaced as being of interest in the case were hardly in a position to influence what the Trump administration might agree to do. There is no evidence of any Manchurian Candidate here.
I believe that the simplest explanation for the firing of Comey is the most likely: Donald Trump doesn’t like him much and doesn’t trust him at all. While it is convenient to believe that the FBI director operates independently from the politicians who run the country, the reality is that he or she works for the attorney general, who in turn works for the president. That is the chain of command, like it or not. Any U.S. president can insist on a national-security team that he is comfortable with, and if Trump is willing to take the heat from Congress and the media over the issue he certainly is entitled to do what he must to have someone he can work with at the FBI.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.