The Sun News

FBI director’s sack: US in political firestorm

•Americans call for Trump’s impeachment

By Emma Emeozor

Controversial United States President Donald Trump stirred the hornet’s nest when on May 9, 2017, he fired the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), James Comey, who was made the seventh director of the organisation in September 2013 by the President Barack Obama administration. He was in the fourth year of a 10-year term. The dismissal of Comey, which caught Americans unawares, has triggered a political firestorm across the US. It is of note that within 110 days of being in office, Trump has sacked Acting Attorney General Sally Yates (inherited from the Obama administration) for refusing to support his travel ban, his National Security Adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (retd.), who was forced to resign after one month following reports about his ‘romance’ with Russia, and dozens of federal prosecutors, including one that was investigating him.

The law is clear on the powers of the President to sack an FBI director. Under a United States statute that first went into effect in 1968, FBI directors are nominated by the President and must be confirmed by the Senate, a process similar to the nomination and confirmation of Supreme Court justices or presidential cabinet officials.

“Unlike the justices, who are appointed for life and cannot be fired but can be impeached by congress (which has happened only one time in American history) or cabinet officials who have no set terms, the FBI director is appointed to a single term of 10 years. The statute establishing the 10-year term limit was passed in 1976, four years after the death of legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who held on to the job for 48 years.

But according to a 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service, “there are no statutory conditions on the President’s authority to remove the FBI Director. In other words, the President can indeed fire the FBI director. An FBI director can also be removed by congress, through the impeachment process.”

In the bureau’s over 100-year history, only one director has been sacked by a President. William Sessions was fired in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton. Appointed by former President Ronald Reagan in 1987, Sessions was accused of violating ethics “such as disguising private vacations as law enforcement business, and using a chauffeured government limousine for personal transportation.”

So, why the fury over Comey’s sack? Those querying the President’s decision point to the timing. For this group, the President’s action was a clever way to obstruct justice. Comey was sacked while he was investigating a matter involving the President and links with alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election that ushered in Trump as commander-in-chief. Trump has been accused of trying to frustrate the investigation by removing Comey from office. The President is reportedly said to be infuriated by the effrontery of an investigation into the allegation that Russia hacked the email of Senator Hillary Clinton to enable Trump have an electoral edge over her. Trump is opposed to any action that would give the impression that he won the presidency through rigging and not by merit. Clinton had repeatedly said Trump defeated her because of the scandal that trailed the revelation that she used her private email for official communication while serving as Secretary of State in the Obama administration.

Reports have said the White House does not seem to like any question about the timing. House counsellor Kellyanne Conway was quoted as saying: “You want to question the timing of when the President fires, when he hires. It’s inappropriate. He’ll do it when he wants to, just like he fired FBI Director Comey when he was faced with evidence that was unignorable.”

Trump’s double-talk

During the presidential debate, Trump expressed bitterness over the failure of the FBI to bring charges against Clinton over the leaked emails. He castigated the organisation to the extent that he declared that he would try Clinton if he becomes President.

He would make a U-turn in October after Comey reopened the case, in the heat of the campaign.

This was when the FBI announced that it discovered another batch of emails. Seeing this as the straw that would collapse Clinton’s campaign, Trump reacted with excitement and applauded Comey at a rally on October 31, 2016. He said: “It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made. It took a lot of guts.” The thinking for Trump was that charges would be brought against Clinton.

His musing over the Clinton email scandal is still fresh in the minds of Americans. This explains why critics of his action were quick to dismiss the White House claims that the President was dismayed over the FBI’s handling of the email investigation.

According to reports, “the official White House version of what happened is that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, fresh on the job, wrote a memo expressing concern about the way Comey had handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation.

“Rosenstein, in his memo, faulted Comey for being unfair to Clinton when he announced his conclusion last July that the case against Clinton should be closed without prosecution. He also criticised Comey for holding a press conference in which he released derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation.”

Since the announcement of Comey’s dismissal, the White House has come out with several statements, struggling hard to defend the action even as angry Americans punch holes in them. Reports quoted White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee as saying the real reason for the firing was the “atrocities” Comey had committed against the chain of command by openly acknowledging in Congressional testimony that he had not told the Attorney General Loretta Lynch at the time what he would say on July 5 when he announced his findings in the Clinton case.

In another outing, Huckabee had said, Comey was given the boot because he no longer enjoyed the confidence of his colleagues and “that the bureau’s probe into Russian election meddling was one of its minor concerns.” However, the new Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe seemed to have contradicted Huckabee when he said while appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee: “I hold Director Comey in the absolute highest regard. I have the highest respect for his considerable abilities and his integrity.”

Other reports quoted him as affirming that Comey enjoyed “broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.”

“The majority, the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep, positive connection to Director Comey,” he added.   

Moreover, sources close to Comey insist that he was sacked because he “never provided the President with any assurance of personal loyalty” and “the fact that the FBI’s investigation into possible Trump team collusion with Russia in the 2016 election was accelerating.”

Curiously, Trump fired Comey at the time he (Comey) had asked for more resources to handle the investigation against the backdrop that it was an exercise with wide coverage requiring deep digging of facts.

The confusion surrounding Trump’s decision was aptly captured by CNN Editor-at-Large Chris Cillizza when he wrot, “Whatever the ever-changing stories trying to explain the real reason that Trump did what he did suggest is that no one either knows or wants to talk about the real reason that Trump moved on Comey.”

Based on reports in CNN and elsewhere, Cillizza said: “And that reason appears to be that Trump was angry at Comey for not being enough of a company man, for seemingly undercutting his 2016 victory, for dismissing the ideas that President Obama had surveilled him in the campaign, for continuing to push on the Russia investigation when Trump wanted to spend more time on the number of leaks coming out of the intelligence agencies.”

Reminiscent of Watergate scandal

A cross-section of Americans has argued that the President’s firing of the FBI director would lead to a constitutional crisis and the impeachment of Trump. Until now, there had been speculations that Trump might not survive beyond 2020 when his first term expires.

However, more people are clamouring for his impeachment before the end of 2017. They liken his action to the Watergate scandal (between 1972 and 1974) that sent former President Richard Nixon packing before the end of his term in office.

Following series of thorough investigations, “Nixon’s last days in office came in late July and early August 1974. The House Judiciary Committee voted to accept three of four proposed Articles of Impeachment, with some Republicans voting with Democrats to recommend impeachment of the President.

“The final blow came with the decision by the Supreme Court to order Nixon to release more White House tapes. One of these became known as the ‘smoking gun’ tape when it revealed that Nixon had participated in the Watergate cover-up as far back as June 23, 1972. Around the country, there were calls for Nixon to resign.

“At 9pm on the evening of August 8, 1974, Nixon delivered a nationally televised resignation speech. The next morning, he made his final remarks to the White House staff before sending his resignation letter to the Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger.”

Senator Richard Blumenthal was among the people who raised the issue of constitutional breach and fired the first salvo, calling for Trump’s impeachment. “It may well produce another United States vs. Nixon, it may well produce impeachment proceedings,” he warned.

But Mark Tushnet, a professor of law at Harvard who focuses on constitutional law and 20th-century American legal history told Vox that  “I’m in the camp of people saying that we’ve started down a path that might lead to a constitutional crisis, but aren’t quite at the point of crisis yet.”

Though Tushnet believes America can “turn off the path” before it reach the crisis stage, he explained what the most likely path to a constitutional crisis is in Trump’s action. “The most likely path would be either refusal by the Trump administration to name a special independent prosecutor to lead the investigation into Russia’s involvement in our election, or the nomination of someone with obviously partisan affiliations to head the FBI.

“This would be followed by strong resistance from Democrats and some discomfort by Republicans at what the administration has done followed by resistance from the administration until there’s a serious erosion of support for the President in Congress. At that point, we might not be in a constitutional crisis, but we’d be at the place where people are seriously thinking about impeachment.

“It’s not too soon to put impeachment on the table. It’s absolute fair to put impeachment on the table right now.” Describing the decision to impeach Trump as a political decision, the professor said: An impeachment hearing is a sign that the Constitution is working, not in crisis.” He noted that “impeachment itself is not a constitutional crisis, because it’s actually in the Constitution.”

How Trump manoeuvres his way out of the impending crisis would depend on how Republicans manage the political firestorm looming over the country.


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