Comey should have been fired, just not now

Trump: Comey was not doing a good job
Trump: Comey was not doing a good job

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  • Laura Coates: Administration's justification for firing Comey -- that he mishandled the Clinton email scandal -- is a transparently disingenuous fig leaf

Laura Coates is a CNN legal analyst. She is a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Follow her @thelauracoates. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)The question is not if now-former FBI Director James Comey should have been fired, but when.

Then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch should have dismissed Comey the moment he defied her and held a press conference divulging derogatory information about a subject of a criminal investigation. His actions were not simply questionable -- they were the definition of insubordination. But just because Comey deserved to lose his job doesn't mean people shouldn't be outraged over the manner and timing of his unceremonious firing.
It's important to understand that President Trump and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein -- author of the letter explaining the grounds for Comey's termination -- likely bring very different motives to the table.
Laura Coates
The Trump administration's justification for Comey's firing -- that he mishandled the Hillary Clinton email scandal -- is a transparently disingenuous fig leaf. Comey's mishandling of the Clinton email investigation was certainly a reason to fire Comey, but It defies common sense to believe it was the reason. Candidate Trump's prior praise of Comey's handling of that investigation belies his stated justification. President Trump's reference to Director Comey's alleged three-time denial that the President was under investigation is incredible and gratuitous at best.
For Trump to fire Comey, the man overseeing the investigation into whether his own campaign colluded with Russia's interference with the 2016 election, simply to stop the investigation, would have been a blatant and Nixonian abuse of power. Rosenstein's motive, however, is arguably justifiable. Trump capitalized on the availability of a seemingly unbiased motive.
While last July's press conference was outrageous, it was Comey's more recent testimony that broke the camel's back. Recall that just last week, Director Comey had the opportunity to clarify his motivation for breaking with department policy and disclosing the details of the Clinton email investigation.
Rather than being contrite about an obvious usurpation of prosecutorial power, he was unapologetic, arrogant and self-righteous. His delusion that the credibility of the Justice Department and the FBI rested squarely on his shoulders was not only counterproductive to any effort to prove the FBI is apolitical, but also a clear act of bravado.
Specifically, Comey explained that he had the audacity to call a then-seated Attorney General Lynch and inform her that he was going to hold a press conference and was not going to even give her the professional courtesy of telling her what he was going to say at that press conference. He further explained that he would do it again.
If that weren't enough, he proved he still had not learned the lesson of publicly making disparaging comments about investigatory subjects when he falsely claimed that Huma Abedin sent hundreds or thousands of emails containing classified information to her estranged husband Anthony Weiner to print out for then-candidate Hillary Clinton. The confluence of insubordination and recklessness on Comey's part were red flags that simply could not be ignored.
But for both Trump and Rosenstein, the notion that past behavior can be predictive was likely a key part of their calculus. In the Clinton e-mail investigation, Comey adamantly described himself as a nonpartisan who was willing to pursue an investigation even if it dismayed the President or his political appointees.
If that description was true, Trump could reasonably fear the same unrelenting investigation irrespective of his wishes or the credibility of his administration. And Trump's initial travel ban debacle showed that he is not above using pretextual reasons to justify inappropriate conduct. Case in point: the President allegedly told Rudy Giuliani to figure out a way to make a Muslim ban legally palatable. Trump wanted Comey out and in Comey's testimony he likely saw some sugar to help the medicine go down.
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For Rosenstein, one could imagine he based his recommendation not on a perhaps-nefarious request of the President to shield Trump from the fallout of a serious probe on Russia, but on his fear that he would be relying on a FBI director who had shown he had no intention of staying in his lane whenever the credibility of a sensitive investigation was even remotely questioned. The Russia situation might have been the very bat signal Comey needed to make the investigation all about him. If Comey was willing to brazenly defy Lynch, surely he would be willing to do so to Rosenstein. That was a chance that, as deputy attorney general, Rosenstein should have been unwilling to take.
When he testified last week before the Senate, James Comey rode into a political trap on a very high horse. Now, to the detriment of the American people, that horse will carry him into the sunset.