If President Donald Trump thinks he can fire his way out of the FBI’s investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia, he is sorely mistaken -- and attempting to do so makes him look weak and fearful, undermines the rule of law, and diminishes what little prospects there were for bipartisan legislation. Given Democrats’ frequent attacks on Trump and FBI Director James Comey, only Republicans have the credibility needed to contain the damage and save Trump from himself. Now they must show they have the backbone to do it.
A memo from the Justice Department laying out the rationale for Trump’s firing of Comey mostly criticized his handling of last year’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email arrangement. The memo is not the issue. The issue is why Trump now claims to find it persuasive, when it merely rehashes arguments that have been swirling for nearly a year -- and contradicts Trump’s effusive praise of Comey last fall, after he revealed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was reviewing more Clinton-related emails. After the election, and in the months since his inauguration, Trump gave no indication that he would fire him.
So what changed?
Well, Comey recently confirmed that the FBI was probing whether Trump’s associates had colluded with Russia in trying to sway the election. Federal prosecutors have reportedly issued grand jury subpoenas in the case. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that European spy agencies had shared information about suspicious interactions between Trump’s campaign and Russian agents. And so on.
If there are in fact innocent explanations for all of the above, Trump has never come close to offering one. He insists, alternately, that the episode is “ a total hoax,” “ a total scam” or “ FAKE NEWS.”
The problem is that this supposedly fake news keeps having very real consequences. It led to the resignation of Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. It led to the ouster of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. It led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Representative Devin Nunes both recusing themselves from investigations. It may have even been a factor in the firing of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
When an elected executive fires the lead investigator in the middle of a probe into his or her activities, the implications cannot be ignored. That is especially true when the decision appears to have been reverse-engineered, as seems to be the case here, with the White House recently directing the Justice Department to produce a memo providing a rationale for the firing.
To dump Comey for his handling of the Russia probe -- which Trump mentioned dismissively in his letter announcing the firing -- would be a grave obstruction of justice. In any event, it is likely to obstruct whatever is left of Trump’s legislative agenda. Comprehensive tax reform just got an awful lot harder, as did nearly every other challenge facing the nation, both foreign and domestic: infrastructure, health care, immigration, trade and others.
Trump either has no advisers around him with the perspective and wisdom to talk him out of such an ill-fated and grossly incompetent decision -- or was unwilling to listen to them. It’s hard to say which scenario is more troubling.
Comey was among the few senior members of the national-security apparatus with the independence and wherewithal to ensure the Russia investigation remained on track. Now he’s been fired, and Trump’s surrogates are insisting that there’s nothing more to say on the matter. It’s “time to move on,” said his spokeswoman.
Actually, it’s time for Congress to get serious about performing its constitutional duties. It has two immediate responsibilities here. First, the Senate must insist that Trump replace Comey with an independent and experienced new director, one who will commit to completing any investigations into the president now underway. No cranks, cronies or close relatives. Encouragingly, several Republican senators, including Richard Burr of North Carolina and Bob Corker of Tennessee, have indicated that they understand this.
They should also consider -- as part of their constitutional role of providing advice and consent -- sending Trump a short list of highly qualified and independent law enforcement leaders, and informing Trump that any nominee not from the list will be judged with utmost skepticism.
Next, Congress must appoint an independent commission to investigate Russia’s interference with the election and any role Trump or his associates played in it. Americans shouldn’t be left to wonder. Such a panel, modeled on the Sept. 11 Commission, should be empowered to access classified information, hold open hearings and air its findings publicly. With the FBI potentially coming under the control of a White House ally, this will only become more urgent.
Firing Comey without recognizing the obvious conflict-of-interest inherent in the decision reflects Trump’s modus operandi: refusing to release his tax returns, refusing to sufficiently distance himself from his business interests, refusing to rein in family members who are profiting from the Trump name and connections. When elected officials refuse to be bound by the ethical practices and norms that we have come to expect of them, it’s up to the public -- and their representatives -- to hold them accountable. This is only the beginning.
Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News. He is the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for cities and climate change.
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