Americas: United States
Special National Security Report: --
-- U.S. President Trump fires FBI Director Comey over Russia investigation
-- Trump reportedly shares highly sensitive foreign intelligence with Russia
-- Memo by former FBI Director Comey says Trump asked him to end Flynn probe
On May 9, 2017, United States President Donald Trump fired Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey. Of significance was the fact that Come was leading the FBI's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign team and Russia in regard to the 2016 presidential election.
Once viewed as a nonpartisan player who led the country's national law enforcement bureau, Comey's reputation took something of a hit in October 2016 when he weighed issued a letter to Congress two weeks ahead of the 2016 election, suggesting a re-opening of the investigation into the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee -- Hillary Clinton -- and her handling of classified emails. Some analysts have suggested that the timing of this move deleteriously affected Clinton's prospects, effectively facilitating Trump's victory. It should be noted that the Clinton emails case, in fact, led to no charges of wrong doing.
Comey re-entered the political spotlight after Trump became president and was drawn into a controversy over whether former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump. Comey, in Congressional testimony, made clear that Trump's accusation of President Obama held no weight, effectively contradicting the president on the record. It should be noted that, to date, there has been no remote evidence bolstering Trump's wiretapping claims of President Obama.
Fast-forward to May 2017 and Comey was fired, with Trump saying that he was acting on recommendations from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Those recommendations from Deputy Attorney Rosenstein cited Comey's treatment of Clinton in 2016 to justify Comey's dismissal. However, there was immediate skepticism regarding this rationale, given that Trump's very election campaign often focused on the FBI case regarding Clinton's emails. In fact, Trump was clearly critical of the FBI director's decision not to bring charges against Clinton, and later praised Comey for re-opening the case only two weeks ahead of the presidential election. Thus, it was not viewed as plausible that Trump would suddenly make himself into the champion of Clinton's fair treatment, expecially given the political benefit to Trump himself.
In a bizarre suspension of protocol, Comey learned of his own dismissal on television as he traveled to Los Angele to address FBI employees in that city. He reportedly made a joke about the untimely and unorthodox delivery of this news and then contacted his office to receive confirmation.
Ultimately, Comey's dismissal was formalized in a letter, which was signed by the president, and released by the White House. Trump stated in this missive that Comey was "hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately," because he arrived at the conclusion that Comey was "not able to effectively lead the bureau." Trump added, "It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission."
Trump enjoyed support for his decision with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham saying, "Given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well." As well, Republican Senator Susan Collins said,
"Any suggestion that today’s announcement is somehow an effort to stop the FBI's investigation of Russia’s attempt to influence the election last fall is misplaced. The president did not fire the entire FBI; he fired the director."
It should be noted that there was some discrepancy between the official explanation given for Comey's firing and unofficial explanations. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer asserted that Trump made the decision to dismiss Comey in the second week of May 2017 based on recommendations from attorney general and the deputy attorney general. But in an interview with journalist, Lester Holt, days later, Trump changed his rationale completely, noting that he intended to fire Comey even before the recommendations from the Attorney General's office. Trump said he had long intended to dismiss the FBI director for "not doing a good job" and called him a "showboat."
Yet another rationale emerged when White House insiders indicated that Trump had been enraged with Comey for some time, largely due to the fact that the FBI director disputed the president's wiretapping accusations involving President Obama. That anger reached new heights when during a dinner attended by the two men, Comey refused to pledge his loyalty to Trump.
Perhaps the most disturbing explanation for Comey's firing involved the intensifying FBI probe into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, Comey had started receiving daily briefings instead of weekly updates on the investigation, and had become increasingly "concerned by information showing potential evidence of collusion." The timing of Comey's dismissal by Trump, juxtaposed against the increasing intensity of the investigation into the Trump's campaign and Trump associates' ties to Russia, was being viewed with alarm.
Regardless of the actual rationale -- or timing -- of Comey's dismissal. The Trump White House appeared to be shocked at the negative fallout from the president's decision.
Reports from the White House indicated that because Democrats tended to blame Comey -- at least partially -- for Clinton's election loss, the firing of the FBI director would be met with bipartisan praise. Trump and the administration, though, were surprised to find that the firing of Comey was, instead, being viewed as highly problematic and unethical, given that the FBI director was leading the Trump-Russian probe.
In fact, during a telephone call with the president, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Trump had made a horrible mistake. Speaking of his impression, Schumer mused about the president's motivations as he asked, "Were these investigations getting too close to home for the President?"
Even on the Republican side of the aisle, the decision to fire Comey was met with skepticism. Republican Senator Richard Burr, who was leading the Senate intelligence committee probe into alleged Russian influence on the election, said, "I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey's termination. I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee."
Republican Senator John McCain acknowledged that despite the nonpartisan nature of the FBI director's position, the president had the right to fire Comey. But he added: "While the President has the legal authority to remove the director of the FBI, I am disappointed in the President's decision to remove James Comey from office." McCain also reiterated his call for an independent investigation into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Accordingly, the move by the president to fire the person investigating him could, therefore, could only be regarded as highly political -- and perhaps self-serving. Indeed, it thus generated comparisons to the "Friday night massacre" during the Watergate era in 1973 when President Richard Nixon fired independent special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, which led to the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.
CNN's senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin condemned Trump's decision to fire Comey, casting it as a "grotesque abuse of power by the President of the United States." Referencing the firing of Archibald Cox during the Watergate scandal of 1973, Toobin added, "This is not something that is within the American political tradition."
It should be noted that the official twitter account of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum weighed into the matter -- presumably due to the fact that Comey's dismissal was being characterized as "Nixonian." The library's twitter account tweeted:
"FUN FACT: President Nixon never fired the Director of the FBI #FBIDirector #notNixonian."
Before the story involving the dismissal of Comey could fully be parsed in the public purview, yet another political development sent tectonic shockwaves through the country. At issue was a Washington Post report that President Donald Trump had "revealed highly classified information" to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during a White House meeting.
In that meeting, Trump described certain details about an Islamic State terror threat involving the use of laptop computers on aircraft.
As well, Trump discussed elements of that threat that could only be determined via espionage capabilities of a specific partner country. While Trump did not reveal actual intelligence-gathering methods, he disclosed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the threat was detected.
Of concern was the fact that the intelligence disclosed by the United States president was so highly sensitive and restricted that it had not been shared widely either within the United States government or externally with other close allies. Also of concern was the fact that the disclosure of the material would not just risk the source of intelligence about Islamic State, but also the methods used in intelligence collection.
Yet, as discussed here, the president boasted to the emissaries from an adversarial country about the quality of the intelligence to which he had access as president.
The deleterious effects of that disclosure were manifold. First, the damage had to be contained at the Central Intelligence Agency and at the National Security Agency. Then, as reported by the Washington Post, it may have "jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State." It also likely jeopardized relations with friendly countries because the intelligence was provided by a United States ally via an intelligence-sharing agreement, and that foreign partner did not give permission for it to be shared with Russia. Furthermore, according to a New York Times report, which corroborated the Washington Post story, that ally had already warned that is sensitive intelligence was leaked -- as it was by the president himself -- they would cut off further information of this type.
Trump's national security adviser H.R. McMaster disputed the Washington Post report, saying, "I was in the room -- it didn't happen. At no time —- at no time —- were intelligence sources or methods discussed, and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known."
This statement, however, did not foreclose the actual report, and as such, Russia could use its resources to trace the information, thus uncovering both techniques and sources. Moreover, McMaster's own aides prevailed on the Washington Post to refrain from publishing logistic and operational details related to the report for national security reasons. The request itself stood as a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that sensitive intelligence had, indeed, been inappropriately disclosed.
A day later on May 16, 2017, McMaster was still casting information about terror threats to international aviation shared by Trump with Russian diplomats as “wholly appropriate" and disputing news reports about the president's revelation of highly classified information to Russian emissaries. He said, “That conversation was wholly appropriate to the conversation, and I think wholly appropriate with the expectation of our intelligence partners.”
However, a follow up report by the Washington Post had already contained this push back in response to McMaster's claims:
"In the course of two media appearances, McMaster essentially confirmed that:
-The president discussed highly classified information regarding the laptop threat with the Russian foreign minister.
-The intelligence came from a third country.
-Trump named the city whether the intelligence was gathered.
-Trump did this on the spur of the moment.
-A White House aide informed the CIA and NSA that the intelligence was disclosed."
Meanwhile, it should be noted that the New York Times said the information was provided by "a Middle Eastern ally." The New York Times and NBC News confirmed on May 16, 2017 that Israel was the allied country that provided the foreign intelligence to the United States.
Of significance was the fact that the leaking of sensitive classified information of this type is, on the face of it, categorically illegal. However, the president of the United States has broad authority to declassify information. Presumably, the president can declassify "in the moment" and by-pass professional national security vetting. The appropriateness of this decision could only be described as murky, given the fact that the sensitive information was provided by foreign intelligence, and without permission for disclosures to third party governments.
The political impact of this disclosure of sensitive classified intelligence to an adversary of the United States -- by the president and commander in chief of the United States -- could only be viewed as uncharted territory.
Criticism appeared to be bipartisan. At least one member of Congress, Democratic Representative Al Green of Texas, crossed the proverbial rubicon, saying that it was an impeachable offense.
The head of the Senate Intelligence Committeee, Republican Senator Bob Corker, did not have a positive interpretation of the events for the Trump administtration. He said, “Obviously, they are in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening. And the shame of it is, there’s a really good national security team in place.” He added, Corker also said, “The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment that I think makes — it creates a worrisome environment.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called an extensive damage assessement committed by the president. She said, “Congress must be given a full briefing on the extent of the damage President Trump has done."
For his part, President Trump defended his “absolute right” to share information with the two Russian diplomats via his favored social media outlet, Twitter. In a series of early morning tweets a day later on May 16, 2017, Trump said: "As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining.......to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism."
But this view was not likely to be accepted by many in Congress -- particularly Democrats. Indeed, Senior Democratic Senator Dick Durbin cast Trump's disclosures as "dangerous" and "reckless."
Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said in an interview with Voice of America, that Trump "has the ability to disclose classified information. That doesn’t make it right. And where it’s sensitive and could put sensitive relationships and sources at risk, it’s just as dangerous whether it’s legal or not."
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer demanded that the White House release a transcript of Trump’s meeting with the Russian officials to congressional intelligence committees.
In the House of Representatives, Congressman Elijah Cummings, the senior Democrat on the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Trump's sharing of classified intelligence with Russian diplomats reinforced Democrats' demand for an independent investigation into alleged ties with Russia. In an interview with MSNBC, Cummings said, "I would hope that at some point the Republicans will join with the Democrats and say, 'Look, we've got to address this.' This is indefensible."
The concern also came from Republicans, with Republican Senator John McCain saying that Trump's revelations of sensitive foreign-sourced intelligence to the Russians risked future cooperation of allies in counter-terrorism efforts. He said, "It’s a serious concern and we have to know who it is he [Trump] may have unmasked by giving that information" to Russian diplomats.
Given the rising concern over the matter, the Senate Intelligence Committee called on the White House to provide more information about Trump's disclosure of sensitive classified intelligence to the Russians.
Meanwhile, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, said to reporters that the Trump administration "has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and order."
That notion of the Trump administration bringing itself under control appeared to be elusive on May 16, 2017 when the New York Times reported that President Trump asked FBI Director James Comey to shut down a federal investigation into his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. This revelation returned the aformentioned Comey firing to the fore, while also revisiting the first major scandal of the Trump administration -- Flynn's Russian communications. The report noted that the now-fired top law enforcement officer, Comey, wrote in a memo that Trump asked him to end the Flynn investigation.
According to memo, which was written by Comey in the aftermath of a February 2017 meeting with the president, Trump introduced the subject of the investigation into Flynn's Russian ties. According to Comey's account, Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn, who had since resigned from his national security post due to revelations that he misled White House officials about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Note: With regard to Flynn's resignation, there was concern over whether or not Russian sanctions were discussed during a conversation with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016 -- prior to Donald Trump taking office as president in early 2017. Flynn had earlier denied that such issues were discussed but he later acknowledged that the nature of the Kislyak conversation conveyed to the White House was “incomplete.” That scandal ultimately led to Flynn's decision to step down from his national security post. Nevertheless, the FBI probe into his Russian (and Turkish) connections was ongoing, and apparently so was Trump's concern for the man once part of his political inner circle.
Comey's detailed notes, according to the New York Times account, recounted Trump saying,
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go." “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
This request, as recorded in the Comey memo, provided clear evidence of (1) the president's attempt to directly influence the Justice Department and, (2) the president's attempt to interfere in the FBI's ongong probe into links between the Trump campaign and Russia.
CNN's legal analyst, jeffrey Toobin, characterized the request by Trump as obstruction of justice. Toobin said, "Telling the FBI director to close down an investigation of your senior campaign adviser for his activities during your campaign for president, if that's true, that is obstruction of justice." Toobin also conjured up the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon presidency as he explained, " 'Close it down' is an instruction to stop investigating President Trump's campaign. Richard Nixon was impeached in 1974 for telling the FBI to stop an investigation of his campaign. That's what Watergate was."
Of significance was the fact that the Watergate references were being repeated. Republicans Senator John McCain warned that Trump's problems were reaching Watergate proportions.
Although it was overshadowed by the news of Trump's interference into the Flynn investigation, the New York Times also reported in the same story that Trump wanted the FBI to focus on leak investigations rather than possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. The self-serving aspect of that angle aside, Trump also suggested that reporters linked with published leaks should be jailed.
It should be noted that the practice of jailing journalists for reporting on stories unfavorable to a head of state or head of government is a practice normally associated with third world countries or autocratic regimes.
For its part, the White House has disputed Comey's account, and a White House statement declared that “the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end an investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn... This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey."
The search to find the truth on this matter was expected to be the primary driver of Washington DC "Beltway" politics in the weeks and months ahead. Democrats, not surprisingly, were demanding investigations and insisting that the Comey memo be released. But even some Republicans, such as Congressmen Jason Chaffetz and Paul Ryan, were urging that the Comey memo be released while Republican Senator Lindsay Graham was calling for Comey to testify before a congressional committee in public and under oath.
-- May 17, 2017
Written by Denise Youngblood Coleman, Ph.D.
President and Editor in Chief