Two months ago, Maclean’s wondered: what would happen if Donald Trump opted to fire FBI director? Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at University of Mary Washington, told us that such a hypothetical decision would cause “a firestorm among the Republicans and Democrats” and that it would be “breathtakingly unwise” for the President.
And then on Tuesday Trump fired Comey.
We spoke with Farnsworth about Trump’s decision and what happens next.
Q: Just recently, you told Maclean’s it would be “breathtakingly unwise” for Trump to fire Comey. Now it’s happened.
A: This was a breathtakingly unwise decision—based on what the public knows right now. We need to have that caveat in there. By all accounts, the director was highly professional and, at a minimum, did Donald Trump a major favour by not revealing the FBI investigation into possible campaign collusion with the Russians before the election.
Q: Did Comey’s firing surprise you? Or perhaps surprise you that it happened so soon into this administration?
A: FBI directors serve at the pleasure of the president, but they often have terms that transcend partisan transfers of power at the White House. Firing an FBI director is a major problem from the point of view of a president who is already facing significant questions about investigations already underway. We’re not talking about the Saturday Night Massacre where Richard Nixon laid waste to the Justice Department in the 1970s [during the Watergate scandal], but this is probably the biggest thing since then.
Q: Why do you think Trump was unwise to fire Comey?
A: For Trump, it draws further attention to the Russia story. It is unlikely to make this issue go away. If anything, it’ll be harder for Republicans to argue that the Justice Department can handle any investigation into possible campaign collusion with the Russians. We’re likely to have an independent prosecutor—the chances of that I think increase with this firing.
Also, the FBI has friends within the government. It’s generally not wise to pick a fight with law enforcement in politics, especially when you’re in the middle of a pretty significant scandal already.
READ MORE: Is Donald Trump a Russian agent?
So what happens next? Trump picks an FBI director that’s more to his liking?
A: It’ll be a real challenge for the Trump administration to find another director. First of all, you have very extensive hearings likely to take place where the Russia story will be front and centre. The Republicans have the majority in the Senate, so they can get Trump’s preferred choice through the process, but it’s an open question of who among credible choices would want to become FBI director for someone who just fired your predecessor. How independent will the next FBI director be? I should think a number of the most prominent choices—those who would be the best FBI directors—would think twice about taking the job after what happened today.
Q: There are three documents out of Washington regarding this firing. There’s Trump’s letter to Comey saying he’s dismissed Comey. There’s a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to Trump recommending a fresh start with FBI leadership. Both are quite vague in details. Then there’s a memorandum written by the Deputy Attorney General explaining some of Comey’s failings, namely, how he handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation during the election.
A: Comey was put between a rock and hard place with respect to the Clinton emails. The Republicans in Congress specifically asked him for updates throughout the process and he provided them. For Donald Trump to argue that Comey was fired because of a six-month old Clinton email scandal doesn’t pass the smell test. It’s not very credible.
Q: Does that lead Americans to thinking this is about Russia?
A: I think reasonable people will wonder what Comey knows about Trump’s team and Russia. And there may be more information coming out.
Q: Could Trump pre-vet the new FBI director to make sure they don’t pursue the Russia investigation?
A: Trump has to face the fact that there will be investigations about Russia whether the FBI director is involved in them or not. The more Trump is seen as covering up, the worse it’s going to be for Republicans who allow him to do that. The Republican majority in the Senate is going to insist on a professional choice, not a partisan hack. If they sign off on a substandard FBI director, they look to be part of a cover up. The one thing you never want to do in politics is take the hit for someone else’s misconduct—especially someone as erratic as President Trump.
Q: Now that Comey has been relieved of his duties, is he at liberty to speak more freely than he could as FBI director?
A: Comey strikes me as professional enough to not do a talk show circuit and talk about what he knows. But it wouldn’t surprise me if information about these investigations leaks at a greater pace from some of his friends and allies in the Justice Department.
Q: And Trump’s attempts to stop all government leaks will work against him?
A: Firing someone who is investigating you is a counterproductive strategy. Even if Comey doesn’t talk, there will be people who make sure more information is release. Perhaps to friendly reporters or friendly members of Congress. The FBI prizes its independence. Donald Trump’s assault on that independence—based on what we know publicly right now—is not going to go down well with many people at the FBI.
Q: If this is the highest position for law enforcement in the country, how can someone who’s supposed to be in an independent role be fired by someone who clearly has some level of conflict of interest?
A: Presidents are given immense power in the American political system when it comes to personnel. FBI directors are given ten-year terms to insulate them from politics as much as one can, but it’s not absolute protection. If a president wants to fire an FBI director, they can do that. Traditionally, FBI directors get a lot of autonomy. You’ll note that as angry as the Democrats were about Comey’s handling of the Clinton email scandal, President Obama never fired him.
What is also important to note is that Comey is a Republican. He worked for George W. Bush as Deputy Attorney General under John Ashcroft. It’s important to recognize he has a career in Republican politics and that didn’t stop the Democrats from keeping him on, even after his handling of email issues during the campaign.
Q: The memorandum written by the Deputy Attorney talked about “restoring public confidence in the FBI.” Is there a lack of confidence in the FBI?
A: I haven’t seen polling numbers to suggest that. The question now is: can Trump’s chosen successor be seen as a credible, independent investigator in a way that the FBI has been seen in the past?
Q: So it sounds like Trump’s decision is counterproductive to his own best interests?
A: Yes. It’s an astonishing development and one that, in the long term, will not serve Donald Trump well.
MORE ABOUT JAMES COMEY:
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- The letters behind FBI Director James Comey’s firing
- FBI director James Comey fired in clash with Trump
- Trump fires Comey, and the search for a new FBI director begins
- What would happen if Trump fired James Comey?
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