Why did Trump fire Comey? It's a frantic effort to sidetrack us — and it won't work

Does the president want to shut down the Russia probe or reopen the Clinton email investigation? Could be both

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 10, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

James Comey   (AP/Ben Margot)
James Comey (AP/Ben Margot)

I had already written about two-thirds of a column about the ProPublica scoop regarding FBI Director James Comey's misstatements about Huma Abedin's emails in his testimony before Congress last week when there was breaking news that President Donald Trump had summarily fired Comey, ostensibly because he had mishandled the Clinton email investigation. So much for that column! After everything Comey had done to help Trump, this was unexpected to say the least. You'd think the president would be more grateful.

Nobody saw it coming. Indeed, it turned out that Comey himself found out that he'd been fired when he was speaking to some FBI employees in Los Angeles and the news appeared on the TV behind him. He thought it was a joke. The letter firing Comey had not even been delivered yet to the FBI's headquarters by Trump's personal bodyguard Keith Schiller.

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According to Dana Bash of CNN, the White House was completely surprised by the horrified reaction. Trump administration officials had expected Democrats to applaud them because they had cleverly used the Clinton case as their rationale. In fact, former Clinton campaign staffer Karen Finney pointed out on "All in With Chris Hayes" that the Justice Department seems to have used Clinton campaign documents and quotes from newspaper op-eds as the basis for its argument recommending Comey's dismissal. Everyone who knows how the Justice Department works says that the slapdash document is highly unusual.

Needless to say, this was a ludicrously lame tactic. However angry Democrats may have been at Comey's interference during the election, and rightfully so, firing him in the middle of the Russian investigation was not something they would ever applaud. If the White House thought this move would do anything but ratchet up the inquisition, it's even more incompetent than we knew.

No one will ever believe that Trump fired Comey because he inappropriately discussed the Clinton case publicly during the campaign, nor should they. Trump made hay of Comey's comments hundreds of times at his rallies. The Republican convention was a slavering witch hunt, based largely on the darkest implications of Comey's comments.

But when the FBI director dropped his stink bomb about the Huma Abedin emails on Oct. 28, this is what Trump said on the trail:

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. What he did, he brought back his reputation. He brought it back.

After Trump's inauguration, he blew kisses at Comey in the White House and assured everyone of his unshakable faith in his integrity.

Recently, however, Trump has been angry with Comey.

Trump made it clear that while claiming to be concerned with Comey's handling of the Clinton case, he was concerned with the Russian investigation as well. In his letter to Comey he spilled the beans:

While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.

Unless there's some other investigation we don't know about, that comment referred to Russian interference in the presidential election.

If it's true that Comey reassured him that he wasn't under investigation, Trump would have been smarter to fire Comey for doing that — since such a communication would be an egregious violation of Justice Department rules.

It's possible Trump mentioned these reassurances to place a Band-Aid over the suggestion that he fired someone who was investigating him personally. Members of the public won't buy that anymore than they'll buy the idea that the president was concerned about Comey's "gratuitous" smearing of Clinton last July, as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein charged in a memo on which Comey's firing is allegedly based.

We don't know why Trump changed his mind about Comey and suddenly decided he had to go, but it's a fair assumption that he's concerned about the Russia investigation. On Tuesday the Senate Intelligence Committee requested documents from the Treasury Department about the Trump team's financial ties to Russia. And Tuesday night CNN reported that a grand jury had issued subpoenas to associates of Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser. This story's growing hotter by the minute.

The New York Times reported, "Senior White House and Justice Department officials had been working on building a case against Mr. Comey since at least last week" and that Attorney General Jeff Sessions "had been charged with coming up with reasons to fire" Comey. Sessions has recused himself from the Trump-Russia investigations — and during his confirmation hearings also recused himself from the Clinton email case. Therefore, he should have had nothing at all to do with this bizarre event. And yet he did. This has not received much notice, but one assumes the attorney general will be questioned about it at some point.

The Trump administration has done everything it could think of to derail this Russian investigation, from firing acting Attorney General Sally Yates and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to employing the hapless Rep. Devin Nunes to distract the press with a three-ring circus around Trump's fantastical allegations in a tweet that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. It has convinced Republicans in Congress to shriek about leaks and "unmasking," both of which they were perfectly fine with until now. They smeared former national security adviser Susan Rice and former President Barack Obama. Now this.

I wonder if one of the reasons the White House fell upon the excuse that Comey mishandled the Clinton case was to create a reason to reopen that case. The condemnation of Comey in the Justice Department memo could easily be read as criticism that he failed to indict Clinton, if you wanted to see it that way. Certainly that's what Trump has always claimed to believe.

Considering the White House's increasingly frantic efforts to sidetrack and mislead, I wouldn't be surprised to see Trump officials try to do this. The one thing Trump's loyal fans would love more than anything else would be the fulfillment of his promise to "lock her up."

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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