In a stunning move, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday and appointed his deputy, Andrew McCabe, to serve as interim director. It’s an extraordinary step, even for an unconventional president: Only one other FBI director has been fired by a sitting president since the bureau’s founding in 1908.
A golden rule of politics is that when a scandal breaks, you try to minimize it. You try to stamp out the fire. By firing James Comey, Trump took a slow burn and threw napalm on it. This could backfire in seven big ways.
Blowback at the agency. Comey is extremely popular among the rank and file at the FBI. He defended the agency through the political minefield of the last year and pushed back against Trump’s accusation that former President Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower, which implicated the FBI. Add that to Trump’s previous questioning of the FBI’s intelligence about Russian meddling, and you have an agency already suspicious of the president. Firing Comey will likely only make it worse — just ask Richard Nixon what happens when senior FBI officials don’t like you.
Here come the leaks. Comey may be more dangerous to Trump outside of the FBI than inside of it. Comey may not say much — he likes to say how much of a rule-follower he is — but those loyal to Comey may have new motivation to open up. And for an administration that has been incensed with Russia-related leaks, of which there have been many, it could let loose a torrent.
The investigation loses credibility. Trump has been desperately trying stop the suggestions that his campaign colluded with the Russians last year, but removing the person in charge of conducting the investigation will cast a shadow over future probing. People convinced that Trump is guilty will now be unswayed. Just today, Sen. Lindsey Graham called for an investigation into Trump’s business ties to Russia, causing Press Secretary Sean Spicer to claim Trump had directed a New York law firm to send a letter to Graham stating he had no business ties with Russia.
“Resistance” anger. After health care, the Russia investigation has been the issue that has resonated the most across the anti-Trump grassroots forces, according to representatives from groups like Indivisible and MoveOn.org. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered for Tax Day marches last month calling on Trump to release his tax returns. Liberal journalists like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow have been suggesting for months that Trump’s tax returns could prove an undeniable connection to Russia. The dismissal of Comey will be adding fuel to the grassroots fire already burning.
A crippled agenda. Next up, a nomination for a new FBI director and a highly politicized confirmation process. This is not passing health care or tax reform. It’s not rebuilding our bridges, roads, and airports. It’s another giant distraction for an administration that has enough trouble turning its priorities into policy.
A special prosecutor. More Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, are calling for a special counsel to be appointed. This is something Democrats have been agitating for, and up until now it was easy to dismiss that call as partisan politics. Not anymore.
Comparisons to Nixon. Finally, Comey’s firing kicks off inescapable comparisons to Richard Nixon, who famously fired Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973 in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Cox was then in the middle of his investigation into Watergate, just as Comey was in the midst of an investigation into the Trump administration’s ties to Russia. Two Nixon aides resigned rather than fire Cox, and the entire episode contributed to the perception that Nixon was guilty of something. Democratic Sens. Bob Casey and Patrick Leahy have already written that this move is “Nixonian.”
The Nixon Presidential Library, however, disagreed: