Democrats blame FBI Director James Comey for Hillary Clinton’s electoral loss, but it’s beginning to dawn on them that he could serve a role in curbing some of the possible plans of the Trump administration.
Trump, who was sharply critical of the FBI chief during his campaign, raised the prospect in an interview broadcast Sunday that Comey may have to audition to keep his job.
Asked whether he would seek Comey’s resignation, Trump, the President-elect, told CBS News’ “60 Minutes:” “I think that I would rather not comment on that yet. I don’t – I haven’t made up my mind. I respect him a lot. I respect the FBI a lot … I would certainly like to talk to him. And – see him. This is a tough time for him. And I would like to talk to him before I’d answer a question like that.”
Comey has almost seven years remaining in his 10-year term. A president can fire him for cause. The political repercussions of doing that are another matter. The 10-year term is intended as a way to give FBI directors a measure of political independence that spans presidential administrations.
Counterterrorism is the FBI’s top priority and those matters are likely to make up the bulk of the interaction between FBI director and president.
But during his campaign, Trump also advocated discriminatory policies such as surveillance of mosques and compiling a database of Muslims that are likely unconstitutional. He also embraced the use of torture, including waterboarding and other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques that are now banned. Speaking to a rally in February, he said “torture works.”
Trump also has raised the possibility of reopening a federal investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, a matter Comey has signaled is now closed.
Comey in recent months has declined to comment on questions about Trump. It’s not clear when the new President plans to sit down with the FBI director.
Attempting to push through discriminatory policies would meet resistance among career lawyers at the Justice Department and elsewhere in the government.
“There are thousands and thousands of people in the government who are going to have to resist what Trump and his entourage are planning,” said Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman and top aide to former Attorney General Eric Holder. “And Jim Comey is one of the most prominent and powerful of those people.”
Comey has a history of bucking presidents. In 2004, as the Justice Department’s No. 2 official, he refused to reauthorize a surveillance program ordered by President George W. Bush. The episode included a dramatic showdown between Comey and White House officials at the hospital bedside of Attorney General John Ashcroft. He and other top officials threatened to resign until Bush made changes to quell the rebellion.
Three years later, as the Bush administration tried to save the shaky tenure of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Comey, by then no longer in the government, appeared before a Senate hearing to retell the story of the hospital incident. His testimony describing the confrontation with Gonzales, at the time the White House’s top lawyer, sealed the fate of the embattled attorney general.
The 2016 political maelstrom that engulfed Comey and the FBI is exactly what Comey tried to avoid, people close to the FBI director say. The FBI worked to complete the Clinton investigation before the July Democratic convention.
No one could have counted on the intrusion of Anthony Weiner, the disgraced congressman and estranged husband of Clinton’s longtime aide Huma Abedin.
FBI investigators looking into allegations that Weiner sent sexually explicit messages to an underage girl stumbled on a batch of Abedin’s emails that appeared to relate to the Clinton probe.
Even if Clinton had won the election, Comey would have faced similar awkward questions.
In July, when he announced a recommendation of no charges in the Clinton email investigation, he also delivered stinging criticism of the Democratic presidential candidate’s carelessness in using the private server. In October, 11 days before the election, Comey dispensed with longstanding Justice Department police not to comment on politically sensitive investigations and sent a letter to Congress advising that the FBI was investigating the recently discovered batch of Abedin emails.
The incoming Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, before the election, said he had lost confidence in Comey’s ability to continue in office.
People close to Comey say he has no plans to leave the job prematurely.
One senior US government official says that asking Comey to leave office now would be bad for the institutions involved, including the FBI and the White House.
“The purpose of the 10-year term is to put the office above politics,” the official said.
Rick DesLauriers, who served as the bureau’s top agent in Boston and held a high-level post at headquarters before retiring, said he imagined things might be awkward between Trump and Comey initially.
“But if I was a betting man,” the 26-year veteran agent said, “I would bet that he’d keep his job.”
DesLauriers said he suspects former US attorneys and Trump advisers Rudolph Giuliani and Chris Christie, would be able to give the President-elect some perspective on the tough spot Comey found himself in with respect to the investigations involving Clinton.
“There’s no reason for him to be removed for cause – he’s broken no laws,” he said of Comey.
One official familiar with Comey’s thinking says he’s aware “the first meeting or two will be awkward” but “he has no plans to go anywhere. He feels perfectly comfortable in his place,” one source says.
Despite causing a political firestorm with the letter he sent to Congress about the new emails, he still believes he did the right thing, including the unprecedented July announcement.
“The big things he decided to do he would do it again,” one person familiar with the matter said.
Some Clinton supporters aren’t yet ready to forgive Comey for his actions in recent months. But they also hope Comey can be the one to stand up to Trump.
“You can point to a lot of reasons why Hillary Clinton lost but I think the evidence is clear that had Comey not sent his letter 11 days out, Hillary Clinton would be the President-elect right now,” Miller, the former Justice Department spokesman said. “He owns that for history. The least he can do is to stand up for fair enforcement of the law inside the Trump administration.”
Even if Comey survives the Trump audition, there’s still the matter of quelling grumbling from some inside the bureau about the handling of the Clinton investigation.
Months of wrangling, particularly between the FBI’s New York office and FBI headquarters, have prompted concerns that FBI leaks could do damage to the bureau’s reputation.
Former FBI Executive Assistant Director Robert Anderson, who worked alongside Comey before retiring last year, acknowledged that there are pockets within the bureau unhappy with Comey’s actions surrounding the Clinton email server investigation. But he believes that in time tensions will subside.
“The bureau has done what it’s been doing the last 100 years,” Anderson said. “Overall the men and women in the FBI are very good at what they do and know this will pass.”