James Comey was the most powerful man in Washington. Or at least that's what I wrote two months ago, following Comey's explosive confirmation to Congress that there was an active FBI counterintelligence probe into possible collusion between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.
I reasoned that it would be politically suicidal to fire the FBI director in the middle of an ongoing probe into the president's associates. I was wrong. My column assumed that even Trump would abide by basic political norms, or for that matter basic political optics. The Trump does not abide. And here we are.
So it's important to take a step back and note what the Comey firing is and is not. First and foremost, it is a self-inflicted wound for the White House. As The New York Times reported last month, the FBI's probe began after Carter Page, a businessman with an interest in Russian energy concerns, visited Moscow in July. At the time Page was a foreign policy adviser to the campaign. But he was never part of the inner circle. He was instead a classic Washington figure, a man who exaggerates his proximity to power and access for personal gain. The campaign said that Page never actually met with Trump.
The bureau has also taken an interest in Paul Manafort, who served for about two months as the Trump campaign manager, until he was fired in August. His termination coincided with another New York Times story that alleged Manafort's name appeared on a ledger listing cash payouts to associates of the pro-Kremlin former Ukrainian president Viktor F. Yanukovych, whom Manafort advised.
Add to this list Roger Stone, a longtime political operative and friend of Trump's, who boasted of contact with Guccifer 2, the hacker whom the U.S. intelligence community identified as a Russian front responsible for stealing documents from leading Democrats.
That is a lot of smoke. It raises a lot of questions. But even Democrats have acknowledged that the FBI still hasn't found evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Until Tuesday, there was a good chance that the FBI investigation would chug along and never find evidence of a crime, turning up instead uncomfortable connections. This would have been embarrassing, but survivable, for Trump.
Now Trump has likely forced the hand of Congress, if not the Justice Department. As Senator John McCain said on Tuesday evening: "This scandal is going to go on."
This means that instead of putting the Russia investigation behind us, there is now more momentum for a select committee in Congress, something to date most Republicans opposed. It means there may be more momentum for a special prosecutor, who would have the authority to investigate any number of things that are not related to the Trump campaign's alleged contacts with Russia during the 2016 election, and get into more sensitive issues for the president such as his organization's financial ties to Russian oligarchs.
All of that said, the Comey firing is not a redux of the infamous Saturday Night Massacre, in which the attorney general and his deputy resigned in protest of President Richard Nixon's attempt to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Let's start by saying that Comey is no Cox. There is a strong substantive case that Comey had colored outside the lines in his handling of both the Hillary Clinton email investigation and the counter-intelligence probe into Russia and the Trump campaign. In explaining the grounds for the Comey firing, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein makes the case well when it comes to Clinton. He argued that Comey was not empowered to announce that no reasonable prosecutor would take the case, even though the attorney general was conflicted.
Furthermore, Comey should not have shared incomplete information with Congress after he learned that Clinton emails were found on the laptop of former Congressman Anthony Weiner, the husband of Clinton's aide Huma Abedin. Comey described his choice as "speak or conceal," and said they were both bad choices, given how they would affect the election. But Rosenstein had none of it. "When federal agents and prosecutors quietly open a criminal investigation, we are not concealing anything, we are simply following the longstanding policy that we refrain from publicizing non-public information," he wrote. "In that context, silence is not concealment."
What Rosenstein did not mention in his memo was Comey's handling of the Russia probe. Trump, however, did touch on this matter. In his letter telling Comey he was fired, Trump thanked him for assuring him on three occasions that he was not the target of an investigation. If this is true, why didn't Comey say this publicly when he announced the ongoing investigation in March to Congress?
There is another reason none of this rises to the level of Watergate. That scandal began with an actual crime, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee's headquarters. Among the people caught were former Nixon White House officials, and their silence was purchased with funds from the Committee to Re-Elect the President.
In Russiagate, we have nothing like that. There may have been some coordination between Stone and Russia-connected hackers about the release of emails stolen from top Democrats. But even so, it's unclear whether this rises to the level of a felony. What's more, it's not clear if Trump knew about any of this.
Perhaps there is a lot more. But there is also a good chance there isn't. We know, for example, that Russia began its influence operation long before Trump was even a candidate. And that's why all of this is so strange. The known facts to date do not implicate Trump in anything more than sleazy opportunism during a hard-fought election. Presidents don't get impeached for that. And yet Trump keeps acting like he has something to hide.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
© Copyright 2021 Bloomberg L.P. All Rights Reserved.