A Historian’s View Five Years after the Firing of James Comey In the 2017 Russia Scandal:
Looking back at history, and trying to analyze as historians do, what now can be seen as the seminal event in the march to the end of the troubled Trump Presidency, the Comey firing documents themselves offered up rich clues to what we later learned had been going on at the White House, within hours after the damaging testimony of former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates in front of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee. The Trump Administration had seen that Yates had offered solid testimony on just how serious her warnings had been to the Administration about National Security Advisor Mike Flynn.
President Trump and his key advisors knew immediately that they could not explain away the 18 days it took to fire Flynn, or at least to restrict his access to intelligence information while some sort of internal investigation could be launched. Of course, we learned from Don McGahn, the President’s legal counsel, in exhaustive and sometimes combative testimony, before the select committee investigating the Russia scandal, that Trump had immediately decided to keep Flynn on against his advice. McGahn played the role of the informer as in the Watergate Scandal that John Dean had performed, in relation to Richard Nixon’s impeachable offense of obstructing justice.
McGahn testified that it was the Washington Post story that was the entire basis for Flynn’s firing. Without it, Flynn would have remained at his post. The Administration wanted to placate a hungry media and divert attention from the Russia interference inquiry by both House and Senate intelligence committees.
Trump, McGahn said, was raging mad at learning of Comey’s request for more money for his Russia investigation, as it showed unmistakably that Comey had evidence of actual collusion with the Russians in undermining the 2016 election by Trump and at least five of his campaign officials, two of whom became White House staffers afterward.
Taking up the publicly released firing documents from 9 May 2017, I reviewed them and noted that all three pertinent documents were dated 9 May. To a practiced historian’s eye, having reviewed hundreds of thousands of historical documents in my professional career, and noting that this was the entire paper trail from the Administration on the firing decision, it becomes clear to me that whatever was decided had arisen with sudden urgency. I should have expected Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s basis for the firing to have circulated through a battery of lawyers in the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Inspector General’s Office.
In point of historical fact, there was already an internal inquiry underway at the moment of the documents release, and Rosenstein had stepped all over their investigation, not waiting for the results that would normally underpin such a momentous decision, only the second time a President had fired a director of the FBI in American history to that point.
Rosenstein’s justifications in the Memorandum offered some pretty good judgements about how directors of the FBI ought to operate from at least three former attorneys general. It’s just how thin Rosenstein’s memorandum was that caught my eye. There was no paper trail of justice department lawyers being consulted at all in the days leading to the firing. Rosenstein we now know had not sought any advice at all.
He failed to cite specific Federal Statute Law or decisions by the courts in case law relating to the proper conduct of the FBI and its director; something the inquiry by justice department lawyers did in detail when their report was quietly sent up the chain to Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions a full month and more after Comey’s firing. If was leaked to the press in full, and attention then fell back on just why Rosenstein had been under such a rush to recommend Comey’s firing in the first place.
The public still remembers that it was not Rosenstein at all who proffered the memorandum used as the basis for the firing of Comey. Jeff Sessions had met with President Trump at the White House early that morning. Sessions, who was supposed to have recused himself from anything to do with the Russia investigation, had stiff-armed Rosenstein, and even threatened him with dismissal if he did not sign off on a copy of the proffered material forthwith.
Sessions himself contributed a brief one paragraph document endorsing Rosenstein’s supposed recommendations concerning Comey. The President contributed that third document informing FBI Director James Comey that he was fired. A fourth document that was submitted as the cover document for all three noted that the personnel decision allowed the FBI to move forward into a fresh new era where restoring public confidence in the FBI was paramount. Rosenstein’s memorandum too had been titled Resorting Confidence in the FBI.
Historians are always looking for historic context to help explain the motive force behind important government decisions. Oddly, there was a huge disconnect between the firing documents level of confidence in Comey, and actual and perceived public confidence in Director Comey. Democrats and Clinton supporters had complained loudly and long about Comey’s letter that had seriously impacted Hillary’s Clinton prospects to be elected president. The campaign had been over for months, and Trump had previously effusively praised Comey for making public the renewed investigation into Clinton e-mails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop computer, placed there by then wife and Clinton Aide Huma Abedin.
None of this makes sense now, just as it did not make any sense to much of the public, and many lawmakers in Washington at the time. Historically, it stretches the boundaries of credulity that punishing Comey for his treatment of Hillary Clinton was anywhere on Trump’s radar. Public confidence in Comey had actually increased when he revealed on March 20th that the President and his aides were under investigation.
The President himself, unwittingly left what police call a “tell,” and what historians call historical evidence of his true motives in firing Comey, when he pointedly thanked the man he was firing for telling him three times that he was not under investigation for wrongdoing in the Russia scandal. Of course the President was lying as Comey never gave him any such indication.
Those who write and research history can see how problematic it was for two men, who as it turned out were under investigation, firing the public official investigating them. Just those few bare documents, some six pages, told us so much about the downfall of a President.