The rise and rise of Donald Trump from reality TV star and general laughing stock to the actual, real life President of the United States has seen so many events that run counter to historical political norms that you’ve probably stopped paying attention – especially given the parallel chaos we’ve seen in the UK which, by 9 June, will have seen two general elections, two era-defining referendums and more twists and turns than an episode of Poirot – all in less than three years.
But there is no doubt that this latest development in the United States is very much a big deal. The labyrinthine political structure of the US government is hard to follow at times and people have come and gone ever since Trump was sworn in as President on 20 January, but the dismissal of the director of the FBI is something absolutely worth paying attention to, because it signifies that Trump is very worried indeed.
Who is James Comey?
Comey has been head of the FBI since September 2013 and came to public prominence in the US election when, with the polls suggesting that Hillary Clinton would be heading to the White House, he bizarrely announced – having previously concluded in July 2016 that Clinton had been "extremely careless", but that no charges should be filed against her – that he was looking at newly discovered emails. Just over a week later, he then said that the FBI had not changed its conclusion, but the apparent reopening of the case is believed by many, including the highly respected political analyst Nate Silver, to have swung the election decisively in Trump’s favour.
So Donald Trump loves him then?
Not exactly. Since taking up residence in the White House, Trump has been dogged by allegations that Russia was involved in hacking emails from Democratic officials and Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta, which were then published on Wikileaks, and that helped to undermine Clinton’s campaign – and that his campaign knew about it and were involved in it. It is also alleged that the Kremlin was involved in the spread of fake news. Since July 2016, the FBI, under Comey’s command, has been conducting a counter-intelligence investigation about Russian interference, much to the annoyance of Trump, who has become increasingly vocal about his innocence, repeatedly posting on Twitter about it.
Why has he fired him?
The official reason given – and let’s be honest here for a second – is absolutely laughable. Attorney general Jeff Sessions and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein apparently recommended to Trump that Comey be fired over his handling of the Clinton email investigation, both the initial conclusion and the subsequent comments that they were looking at ‘new’ emails. Yes, that’s right, the comments that almost certainly helped get Trump elected.
So if that’s ridiculous, what’s the real reason?
It is believed that the FBI’s investigation into Trump-Russia links had entered a “significant new phase”, with CNN reporting that a grand jury had begun issuing subpoenas to associates of Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser at the centre of the inquiry. Put simply, it looks like the FBI is getting serious, and getting close to the truth. And clearly that’s a truth that Trump was not going to like. In layman’s terms? Donald Trump has fired the man who is investigating Donald Trump. What does that look like to you?
So does this mean Trump is going to be impeached?
It’s the million dollar question. Due to the absurd nature of Comey’s dismissal, it is not going to be a straightforward process appointing a replacement, which means that an acting director will be in place for the foreseeable future. An acting director would not have the power to stop any investigation that is in process. However, a director handpicked by Trump would obviously be less likely to pursue the investigation with vigour – and could even halt the investigation, although this would surely lead to a public outcry.
With this in mind, many Democrats have already been calling for an independent investigation into Trump and Russia – but for such an inquiry to happen, it would need Republican as well as Democrat support. So far, the party has been quiet, with only a couple raising their heads above the parapet, such as Justin Amash, a congressman from Michigan and Senator John McCain.
Just answer the question…
If the Republicans cave in and agree, or if the FBI is able to continue its investigation without interference, we’d say it’s not looking good for Trump. But those are both enormous ‘ifs’. The Republicans didn’t crack during the criticism that has rained down on Trump’s behaviour during pretty much the entirety of his run in the primaries, the election campaign and since taking office, so it’s hard to see them cracking now – they want the power too much. And do you really think Trump is going appoint a new independent director? Would you?
What about the parallels to Watergate?
The New York Times has already compared Comey’s sacking to that of Archibald Cox, who was a special prosecutor “looking into the so-called third-rate burglary that would eventually bring Nixon down”. Essentially, it’s very similar – Nixon fired the guy who was investigating him, and Trump has done the same.
“This is Nixonian,” Senator Bob Casey said in a statement. “Not since Watergate have our legal systems been so threatened and our faith in the independence and integrity of those systems so shaken,” added Senator Richard Blumenthal.
Of course, Nixon was finally taken down by the ‘smoking gun’ tape, which he was forced to hand over. Does a Trump ‘smoking gun’ exist? And will the FBI be allowed to find it? Time will tell.