To say that last week’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey has added to the drama of an already chaotic presidency is an understatement. Nor is it a stretch to say that firing could have consequences for the Trump presidency and beyond.
My purpose here is not to litigate whether Comey should or should not have been fired, but rather to put his dismissal in context and indicate where the country should go from here.
The FBI director is appointed by the president and approved by the Senate and serves a 10-year term. The president can dismiss the FBI director, though previous presidents have rarely done so. The last dismissal of an FBI director occurred under President Bill Clinton in 1993 after an internal investigation determined that he had misused FBI funds and resources for personal benefit.
The FBI as a whole falls under the U.S. Department of Justice, but it is also a member of the U.S. Intelligence community. If not by statute, the Bureau is treated as independent by custom so as to keep it outside of politics.
It is no wonder that Comey’s firing came as a shock. The administration has never offered a strong reason for it. Surrogates have stated that the firing was based on recommendations from the deputy attorney general. However, President Trump stated that he had already decided to fire the director regardless. Other surrogates mentioned lack of support by the rank and file in the FBI. This also has been debunked. The president himself stated that the Russia investigation played a role, raising concerns about obstruction of justice, which is an impeachable offense judging by the charges against Presidents Nixon and Clinton.
Equally disturbing is the timing of the firing. It occurred on the same day that former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified that the president waited 18 days to fire National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, after she had informed the White House that he could be compromised by the Russians. The president stated that the issue with Gen. Flynn did not sound like an emergency. Additionally, on the same day of Comey’s dismissal, a grand jury issued subpoenas over the probe of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, raising fears that the White House is creating a distraction from larger issues.
So where does the country go from here? There are now three issues at play. The first is ensuring the Russia probe continues in a fair and thorough fashion and is not buried under politics. The second is maintaining both the public trust in the FBI and the Bureau’s reputation for independence. Finally, what is left of the administration’s ability to govern must be salvaged.
Congress should appoint either an independent commission or a joint select committee to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election. This is the best path forward to keep the investigation outside of politics and keep focus on the most important issue rather than possible distractions.
The administration should appoint a special prosecutor. This is not to overlap with the independent commission/select committee. Rather, they complement each other. The special prosecutor can focus on whether an actual crime is committed while the commission/committee also will examine the larger issues and possible violations of convention.
Additionally, the administration must appoint a strong, independent head of the FBI with an impeccable reputation. The process should be confidential and deliberate — not an “Apprentice”-style spectacle.
Finally, the administration must revamp its communication shop. The White House should speak with consistency and transparency and not hold internal debates on political talk shows. Ironically, President Clinton provides an example of a solution when he brought in David Gergen, a respected advisor to Republican presidents, to develop the administration’s communication strategy.
While these actions have the potential to calm the drama and chaos, the question is if it will happen. To occur, officials must choose country over politics. In the past, choosing this path was common, and the nation flourished. Today, this sense of duty seems to be lacking, and the country is worse off for it.