Trump had to do it

White House: Comey had missteps and mistakes
White House: Comey had missteps and mistakes

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    White House: Comey had missteps and mistakes

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White House: Comey had missteps and mistakes 00:51

Story highlights

  • Tim Stanley: Trump did the only possible thing in firing Comey; despite optics, the FBI director's time had run out
  • He says Trump's approach to problems: intensify it, personalize it, try to score public win. But this time it could backfire

Timothy Stanley, a conservative, is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Did Donald Trump do the right thing when he sacked FBI Director James Comey? He probably did the only possible thing. There is a halfway position between regarding President Trump's action as either righteous or tyrannical. It's acknowledging that Comey's time had run out.

Timothy Stanley
It's true that Comey was leading a criminal investigation into the Trump campaign's links to Russia. It's true that Trump was attacking the FBI long before now. But the case that Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, laid out against Comey in his memo to Attorney General Jeff Sessions was nonpartisan and accurate.
It was Comey, in July 2016, who earned the fury of Republicans for recommending no charges be brought against Clinton following an investigation into her emails, but who also described her actions as "extremely careless," effectively giving the Trump team something to use against her.
    It was Comey who announced the existence of some fresh, and ultimately irrelevant, emails related to the Clinton case on October 28 -- just 11 days before the election. And last week, it was Comey who provided faulty testimony to Congress related to the email inquiry.
    All of these are reasons for Democrats to demand his job. No wonder the audience on Stephen Colbert's show initially cheered when he announced Comey was being fired.
    If Hillary Clinton had won in November, would she have kept Comey on? I doubt it. And imagine an alternative reality in which Trump did allow Comey to stay. It would look as if he was protecting a man who had lost the confidence of the voters and the Democratic Party: it would validate the narrative that the email story gave Trump the election.
    The problem is not sacking an FBI director: Bill Clinton did that to William Sessions in 1993. The problem is doing it when not only is the director under pressure, as Sessions was, but so is the President -- and by the very same FBI. By firing Comey at this time and with a letter in which the President makes an obvious reference to the Russia story, Trump makes it look less like a matter of restoring confidence in the FBI and more about protecting his own position.
    But that's Trump: his approach to any problem is to intensify it, personalize it and try to score a public win. This time it may seriously backfire.
    Both Republicans and Democrats are spooked. Comey outside the FBI could be more dangerous to him than Comey inside the bureau.
    The Russia issue will flare up again. The hunt for a replacement for Comey will be entirely shaped by it, and his successor will likely have to promise a penetrating investigation that satisfies Trump's critics.
    This is a long game. The Democrats are trying to usurp the President, the President is trying to hold onto his throne. Everything is seen through that light, even the things that would have happened regardless of the partisan politics framing the decision. But I repeat: Comey could not have lasted in that job.