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Chris Honoré: All roads lead to Russia

Part One

Last Tuesday, May 9, President Trump fired James Comey, the Director of the FBI, who was in the middle of leading a wide-ranging criminal investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

The firing sent shock waves of disbelief through Washington’s corridors of power and has, since, riveted the attention of the media. Almost immediately, comparisons were made to the early 1970s Watergate scandal that ultimately resulted in the resignation of Richard Nixon.

What has received little coverage or discussion has been the manner in which Trump fired Comey, who, of course, served at the pleasure of the president, but still had almost seven years remaining on what is traditionally a 10-year term.

The manner in which Trump handled the Comey firing said a great deal about the character of the man: It was duplicitous, vindictive and retributive, not only in its faux rationale but in its execution.

First, it’s now clear that Trump had contemplated Comey’s firing for months and used the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, as cover.

The president would, of course, have to demonstrate cause. And so, Trump directed Rosenstein to prepare a list of particulars as to why Comey was being fired. Sessions and Rosenstein went to the White House on the 9th and delivered what was a lengthy memo that focused on Comey’s questionable handling of the Hillary Clinton private email server investigation, a server that she used while secretary of state.

Rosenstein’s thesis was that he could not “defend the director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation ...” and he did not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he, Comey, “was mistaken.” He also wrote that Comey overstepped his role in announcing the conclusions of the Clinton case. He went on to say that in order for the FBI to “regain public and congressional trust,” Comey should be removed and a new director found. It was a memo characterized by some in Congress as “bizarre.” What it was, however, was a hurriedly written justification initiated by Trump.

Trump attached the memo (signed by both Sessions and Rosenstein) to his own letter that stated he was acting on their “recommendation.” Trump went on to write, “you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.” Trump also mentioned in his letter the need to restore “public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission.”

When the memo and White House letter were released to the press, the initial story was that Trump was merely accepting the advice of his two Justice Department officials and reluctantly acceding to their wishes. After all, he had praised Comey during the campaign for his courage regarding the Clinton matter and his press secretary had recently affirmed the president’s confidence in the director. That story, repeated by his press secretary and the vice president, quickly imploded, and Trump two days later acknowledged that he had decided some time before to fire the director. The memo proved an elaborate charade and a cynical hoax.

On the 9th, Comey flew to L.A. to visit the Southern California field office, absent any hint of Trump’s machinations. It was during a speech to the assembled agents that he saw on a television screen the breaking news that he had been terminated. He initially thought it was a prank, but was taken into a side room by his team and told that, as of that moment, he was no longer the director of the FBI.

For Comey to discover in this manner that he had been fired was craven and degrading, considering his years of service to our nation.

What is now clear is that the cause of Comey’s firing was not because of the Clinton email server investigation; rather, it was connected to possible collusion of Trump’s campaign with Russia. Trump’s action now appears to be an attempt to stall an inquiry that could prove catastrophic to his presidency.

There is a great deal at stake as all of this unfolds, beginning with the integrity of our democracy.

— Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.