President Trump’s Tuesday evening dismissal of FBI Director James Comey has shocked and stirred official Washington like nothing else so far in the developing Trump era.
Mr. Trump has broken many US political norms in his march to the White House. This move shattered another – that it’s politically dangerous to exert direct control over somebody that’s investigating you.
Now Republicans and Democrats alike are uneasily awaiting days of coming drama over the FBI issue. The effect of the move will ultimately be determined by the answers to some crucial underlying questions:
Why did the president do it? The White House insists that Mr. Comey was ousted due to his missteps in handling the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. But Trump could have fired the FBI chief on his first day in office. It’s likely that he benefited politically from those missteps. Meanwhile, Trump’s own tweets and media reports indicate he remains furious over the FBI’s investigation of his campaign’s link to Russia. He wants the bureau to focus intently on White House leaks, not ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn’s Russian communications.
Who will the White House nominate to replace Comey? In the current uproar, it seems almost impossible that Trump would nominate a personal supporter or crony such as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as the next FBI head. It would be much more prudent to pick someone who is beyond reproach and independent to replace Comey, so as to quiet concerns about the direction of the Russia investigation. But Trump’s unpredictability is well established. If nothing else, his FBI nominee will be an indication of how far he’s willing to go to defy Washington’s expectations.
Will the Russia probes proceed? Trump has long denounced the Russia investigations in Congress and the FBI as “fake news.” He’s insisted there’s no proof of collusion between his campaign and Russian interests. But the probes are interested in many levels of connection, of course, from possible inadvertent contact between low-level aides and Russian spies, to alleged purposeful communications of intent from then-incoming NSA chief Flynn and others. If the FBI’s investigation is changed or derailed in the wake of Comey’s firing, the reaction from Democrats (and some Republicans) would be nuclear. Whether the Comey firing further slows the parallel probes of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees remains crucial as well.