The British historian Lewis Namier wrote: “The crowning attainment of historical study is to achieve an intuitive sense of how things do not happen.” We don’t know exactly how the firing of James Comey happened. However, I think we have a sense of how it didn’t happen. It probably didn’t happen either as Trump supporters initially said or as his fiercest critics say.
The initial pro-Trump line was that the firing was a “bottom-up” affair. The new Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, took a fresh look at Comey’s performance and concluded that (1) it didn’t measure up and (2) the FBI needed new leadership. Attorney General Sessions agreed and President Trump ratified the decision.
The anti-Trump line is that Rosenstein’s findings, which centered on Comey’s “mistreatment” of Hillary Clinton, were just a pretext. As one account put it, “the letters [from Rosenstein and Sessions] were written to give [Trump] a rationale for firing Comey.”
The Trump administration has abandoned the initial pro-Trump line. Reportedly, it acknowledges that Trump is furious about the FBI’s investigation and that he had been thinking about firing Comey for more than a week before he did so — well before he received the Rosenstein letter and for reasons having nothing to do with Hillary Clinton.
The anti-Trump line may be closer to the mark. However, it also implausible. It assumes that Rosenstein, whose integrity is widely acknowledged, acted as a stooge ( Dana Milbank’s word) by agreeing to write a letter that would give Trump a rationale for firing Comey. Making the scenario less plausible still is the fact that Team Trump fairly quickly acknowledged that the president was dissatisfied with Comey for reasons having nothing to do with what Rosenstein cites in his letter.
So how did the Comey firing go down? The other crowning attainment of historical study may be know to abstain from this sort of speculation.
Still, one can formulate a scenario in which Rosenstein is neither a “stooge” nor the prime mover in the case. Once Rosenstein assumed his position as Deputy Attorney General, he may have been asked to evaluate Comey. The request would have been reasonable. The Deputy Attorney General oversees the FBI director, and Comey is a controversial figure, to say the least.
It would have been reasonable to expect Rosenstein to find much to criticize, especially in Comey’s departure from DOJ tradition by holding a press conference to lay out incriminating evidence against Hillary Clinton, who wasn’t going to be prosecuted. In preliminary discussions, Rosenstein may have shared his view that this was improper.
Adverse findings by Rosenstein could be used to bolster the case for firing Comey, something Trump was strongly inclined to do. The findings would be written in good faith, not to give Trump a rationale. But they would provide additional support for the decision Trump wanted to make.
In my opinion, there was nothing wrong with consulting the Deputy Attorney General regarding the FBI director. As indicated above, it’s a normal thing to do. The fact, if it was the case, that Team Trump knew what Rosenstein was likely to say doesn’t change this.
But here’s the big question: Is there anything wrong with firing Comey over unhappiness with his investigation of the 2016 election and associates of Trump (assuming that this was the main reason for the discharge)? If the unhappiness was with the direction the investigation was taking or its vigor, I think this would raise concern. The investigation should proceed independently of the wishes of those with a stake in its outcome.
This concern would deepen if the new director were seen as backing away from the investigation or changing its course without good reason.
UPDATE: To speculate further, it may be that Trump wasn’t concerned about the direction or vigor of the investigation, but simply didn’t want to have the investigation run by a loose cannon. That would be a reasonable stance, and it’s why I was surprised when Trump initially said he would retain Comey.
But here’s where the question of timing comes in. Did it suddenly dawn on Trump that Comey is a loose cannon? That seems unlikely.
It’s true that Trump now has a memo from Rosenstein that says, in effect, that Comey is a loose cannon. I have no doubt that the memo was written in good faith. But I’m not sure it overcomes the “timing” problem if reports that Trump was furious with Comey’s investigation are accurate.