On Tuesday evening the Trump administration sent a shock wave throughout the political world as it announced the immediate termination of James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Comey’s firing came less than four years into his 10-year term as director of the federal government's law enforcement agency. His dismissal came as a shock to many of President Donald Trump’s critics, since many of them believe that Comey’s announcement days before last year’s election that he was considering reopening the FBI’s investigation into the illegal use of a private email server by Hillary Clinton while serving as secretary of state ended up costing her the presidency.
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Clinton herself appears to be among this group. Last week she blamed Comey for telling Congress about duplicated, subpoenaed emails that were found on a computer belonging to former Rep. Anthony Weiner, the husband of her top aide, Huma Abedin.
"If the election had been on October 27, I would be your president," she said in an interview at a women's conference moderated by CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "It wasn't a perfect campaign, but I was on the way to winning until a combination of Comey's letter and Russian WikiLeaks," she added. A statistical analysis by the American Association for Public Opinion Research cast doubt upon this claim, but some polling experts agree with it.
While former Clinton supporters and staffers have accused Comey of effectively anointing Trump to be the president, his short relationship with Trump has been extremely complicated. In typical fashion, Trump has made a number of contradictory statements about Comey.
Last July candidate Trump denounced Comey on Twitter for refusing to recommend that charges be brought against Clinton:
After Comey sent his controversial letter to Congress about the email investigation in late October, Trump reversed course during a campaign rally in Michigan.
“And I have to give the FBI credit. That was so bad what happened originally,” Trump told supporters in Grand Rapids. “And it took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had where they’re trying to protect her from criminal prosecution. You know that. It took a lot of guts.”
“I was not his fan,” Trump continued, “but I’ll tell you what: What he did, he brought back his reputation. He brought it back.”
After an FBI examination of the emails found on the Weiner computer proved that they were mostly duplicates, Trump flipped again to criticizing Comey on Nov. 6, after the FBI director once again announced he would not recommend charges be brought against Clinton.
"You can't review 650,000 new emails in eight days," Trump said at another campaign rally. "Hillary Clinton is guilty. She knows it. The FBI knows it. The people know it. And now it's up to the American people to deliver justice at the ballot box on Nov. 8."
Once Trump assumed the office of the presidency, he continued his self-serving pattern of behavior toward Comey. Shortly after his inauguration, Trump warmly greeted Comey at a White House reception for law enforcement officials. “He's become more famous than me," Trump said with a laugh, according to Reuters.
But the president’s attitude toward Comey changed in late February after Trump lashed out at the FBI, the CIA and other intelligence agencies for a series of leaks to the news media, with several leading to the revelation that Michael Flynn, the retired Army general who had been serving as national security adviser, had engaged in multiple communications with Russian government officials that he had not disclosed to the Trump White House or the Senate. Flynn resigned after he was revealed to have lied about conversations he'd had with the Russian ambassador.
Seeking to stop growing public concern that Trump's campaign operation had been aware of Russian efforts to hack into email messages of Hillary Clinton campaign staffers and distribute the content widely, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus was dispatched to ask Comey and his colleagues to deny reports that Trump's campaign aides had been in communication with agents of the Russian government. After word of the contact leaked out, White House press secretary Sean Spicer claimed that the FBI had initiated the discussion about alleged Russian interactions. The FBI never denied the reports and refused to comment about the White House’s assertions.
Trump himself took the feud with Comey to the next level one early March morning when he claimed in a series of unfounded tweets that former President Barack Obama had instructed intelligence officials to monitor communications coming out of Trump’s campaign headquarters.
The next day several news organizations reported that Comey had asked the Department of Justice to publicly and explicitly deny Trump’s charge. Attorney General Jeff Sessions never did so.
As the allegations of influence peddling multiplied, the Trump-Comey relationship took another negative turn after Newsweek reported on March 29 that the FBI director had attempted in June or July of last year to disclose to the public that the government had definitively concluded that the Russian government was behind the email hacking of the Clinton campaign.
According to the magazine, Comey pitched Obama Cabinet members John Kerry, Loretta Lynch, Jeh Johnson and Susan Rice on the idea but the former administration vetoed the idea, preferring instead to issue a joint agency report, which was subsequently released in October to much criticism for its lack of specificity.
Some former campaign aides for Hillary Clinton have blamed the Obama administration for failing to forcefully accuse the Russian government of hacking her campaign early enough.
"The White House was like everyone else: They thought she'd win anyway,” an anonymous former Clinton staffer was quoted by the website Axios. Referring to Comey, the staffer continued, “If he had done more, it might have lessened a lot of aggrieved feelings, although I don't think it would have altered the outcome. The Russia thing was like a spy novel, and anything he had said or done would have helped get people to believe it was real."
The Trump-Comey relationship continued to simmer below the surface in April as the FBI director continued to carry out his role in investigating Russian hacking and possible links between Trump staffers and Vladimir Putin's government. Until his firing, Comey was the only senior leader of the inquiry who had not been appointed to office by President Trump.
During a May 3 congressional oversight hearing, Comey defended his initial announcement about the Weiner laptop even as he claimed to be “mildly nauseous” at the idea his actions may have affected the election. The director also testified that Abedin had forwarded “hundreds and thousands” of emails to her husband, a claim the FBI was forced to retract after it was revealed to be incorrect.
Comey’s public statements about his agency’s investigation of the Clinton email server were cited by the Justice Department in a May 9 memorandum written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
“The Director was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution,” Rosenstein wrote.
The memo also cited several Democratic and Republican former law enforcement officials who denounced Comey for disclosing findings of fact from the Clinton investigation during his news conference. “We do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation,” the deputy attorney general wrote. He also criticized Comey’s now-notorious letter to Congress of Oct. 28 that raised the possibility that the FBI would reopen the email server inquiry.
Shortly before Trump dismissed Comey, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told journalists that the president had retained the services of a top Washington law firm to help him rebut claims that Trump has business dealings in Russia.
"He has no business in Russia. He has no connections to Russia. So he welcomes that," Spicer said.
"In fact, he is already charged a leading law firm in Washington, D.C., to send a certified letter to Sen. [Lindsey] Graham to that point that he has no connections to Russia," Spicer added.
Hours after Comey’s firing was announced, CNN reported that federal prosecutors had issued subpoenas to associates of Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, to provide business records of their contacts with him.