Donald Trump found a new way to stun America late Tuesday when he fired FBI director James Comey, ostensibly for how he handled the probe into Hillary Clinton's emails. But the move was a long time coming—though Trump has praised Comey for being critical of Clinton, the two have been beefing since Trump became president, and at least at odds since Comey (quietly) began investigating potential connections between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the election last summer. (Days before his firing, Comey asked the Justice Department for more money for that investigation.) Trump seems to have been looking for a reason to fire Comey, and having won the White House by defying every norm of American politics, it only figures that the president wouldn't worry about how bad it looks to get rid of the lawman investigating him.
Still, the firing was notably abrupt, and even within the notoriously taciturn FBI community, the reaction was swift, outraged, and fierce.
"This is not only a direct impugning of the integrity of Director Comey, but a challenge to the general agent population to find and reports all the facts related to the interference of Russia in the general election," former FBI counterterror executive (and VICE contributor) David Gomez wrote me Tuesday evening. "To paraphrase the words of Admiral Yamamoto following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 'I fear Trump has awakened a sleeping giant in the FBI.'"
Comey's firing creates a bunch of new problems for Trump. Already, the administration and federal agencies under Trump have been notably leaky; now that the president has essentially declared war on America's chief domestic law enforcement agency, those leaks could become even more damaging. Wannabe whistleblowers may come out of the woodwork. A new FBI director will have to be confirmed, sure to be a tough political battle. And with many suspecting Comey was pushed out to stall the Russia investigation, even some Republicans are calling for an independent probe into ties between Trump's campaign and Russia.
For some perspective on this saga, I called up Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center's Liberty and National Security program at NYU and a former FBI special agent who specialized in domestic terrorism and covert ops. He was in the bureau the last time a president directly ousted the FBI head, under Bill Clinton in 1993. Here's what we talked about:
VICE: You've been around your share of FBI drama. How shocking is this, really, in the broader context of its history?
Michael German: I'm not surprised by the Justice Department memorandum [laying out the reasons for the firing]—I think that clearly lays out the serious issues with Comey's interjection into the presidential election and his inappropriate comments about the investigation into Hillary Clinton. Certainly, firing an FBI director is a very unusual step. But this is a problem we faced during the Bush administration with the attempts to politicize hiring at the Department of Justice—the firing of US attorneys for political reasons. Once you politicize an agency like the Justice Department and then the FBI, which demands independence in order to function, it's hard to correct it without appearing to re-politicize it. And that's why the policy was so strict about not doing what Comey did, and unfortunately, I think it's going to do great and lasting harm to the FBI.
Obviously, the concern is what it will do to potential investigations regarding the alleged Russian influence in the election—and suggests that we need to have a lot more transparency about that right away.
How do you think the FBI moves forward after this?
It's a difficult problem, because it's not just about selecting a director who will give the public confidence that this person will lead the agency but also convincing the rank-and-file agents that their agency is properly focused on its mission and will utilize their time and efforts appropriately.
Looking back, one of the reasons that Louis Freeh—who was the next director appointee [after Clinton fired William Sessions] was picked was because he had a background in the FBI. I think part of that was to assuage the concerns within the rank and file that this was somebody who understands our mission, who understands the type of work that we do and will support us in doing it the right way.
What do you know, if anything, about acting director Andrew McCabe, a 20-year vet of the bureau?
I don't think I had any personal dealings with him. Obviously he was involved in the decisions that have become so controversial. Particularly, [he had a] potentially inappropriate conversation with the White House chief-of-staff about the Russia investigation. He's not somebody without controversy himself.
Initial reports have been pretty alarmist when it comes to what this means for the Russia probe—basically that it's over, or that this firing was clearly designed to scuttle it. But how much is the director actually involved day to day in an investigation like that?
So in your average investigation, the director has very little knowledge of it until it's ready to indict—and even then probably not very much visibility into an average investigation. Unfortunately, directors have had a habit of sticking their fingers into investigations that have received public attention, whether that's the Richard Jewell situation during the bombing of the Olympics, or the Anthrax investigations, or any number of cases where management takes a heavy hand—and it's often those cases that end up becoming quite controversial.
Frankly, when the referral first came over regarding the Clinton email server, Comey made this very odd statement where he said he was going to make sure this investigation was done like every other one and that he would have personal oversight of it. Well, it's not being done like every other one, if a political appointee has personal attention on it!
Unfortunately, he did not seem to have an objective view of his own behavior. And one of the things that's been missing from the debate over Russian influence on the election is that we have a $70 billion-a-year intelligence apparatus designed to prevent exactly this sort of thing: a hostile nation having a negative influence on our democracy. So why it took so long for the FBI to initiate that investigation and prevent that from happening rather than just reacting to it afterward hasn't really been discussed yet. There's reporting that the British and some other European governments had warned the intelligence community back in 2015, so it's hard to understand why it took until July 2016 for the FBI to open an investigation.
How worried should we be, given what you know about the way the bureau operates, about the fate of the probe?
To the extent that it's a counterintelligence investigation, those tend to be highly political—you're talking about policy, particularly foreign policy, and national-security policy. By definition, these cases tend to be highly politicized and the administration in furtherance of its role in implementing foreign policy often has an outsized role how those cases are run.
If a French intelligence officer is spying on some economic meeting here in the US, the FBI might have that person dead to rights and ready to arrest them, but because we have many dealings with France and consider the French an ally, the decision whether to just gently tap them on the shoulder and ask them to leave is a policy decision. I think it's pretty clear that this is already a pretty politicized investigation, for good or for ill.
Given that there are actual criminal violations under investigation, it becomes much harder for the White House to have any influence over that in a normal, appropriately functioning White House and Justice Department. Now it's not clear that's what we have today.
The way Trump removed Comey seems, to a lot of people, bizarre and dangerous. Comey was reportedly addressing employees at an LA office when the news of his firing flashed on TV and initially thought it was a prank. Trump also claimed in his letter about the firing that Comey had told him three times he was not under investigation. Doesn't all of this affect the probe?
Certainly. I'm sure for the agents who are actually involved in that investigation to hear that the director is making statements to the president—if that's true—that's quite unsettling. What's the point of doing an investigation if the FBI director is going to tell people they're off the hook? Whether those are believable statements or not is a different question, but certainly that type of letter is going to undermine the agents' confidence that their investigative efforts are going to be viewed objectively and processed appropriately through the Justice System.
What safeguards are in place, if any, to keep the Russia probe alive without Comey?
One thing to keep in mind is that facts are stubborn things, and they tend to persist even when people don't want them to be there. If the FBI has gathered information to suggest that what has been leaked to the media in many different forms is true, I think that it will be hard to stop that investigation from moving forward.
Moreover, even if the FBI closed its investigations tomorrow, you have congressional investigations, and obviously the inspector general is looking at the way the bureau handled the Clinton email situation. To the extent that investigation is not focused entirely on Comey—which I hope it isn't—that should probably continue. If any agents feel their investigations are being impeded by any kind of official action, they will [be able to] make complaints to both Congress and the inspector general. Such an attempt would be ineffective in the end: It might delay things, but as a political matter, that [perception of obstruction] is going to be more difficult for the administration to deal with than anything else.
How do you see the FBI responding to this historic situation as an institution?
The agents will continue to do their jobs as effectively as they can under whatever circumstances they're presented. And if they're being obstructed, they will be very vocal about that—and hopefully will come to their appropriate committees in Congress, the inspector general, to ensure such obstruction is investigated.
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