12 hours after President Donald Trump’s stunning firing of FBI Director James Comey, there are a whole lot more questions than answers.
I’ve been jotting down the questions I still have about all of this since hearing of the Comey dismissal last night. Here’s what I came up with – in no particular order other than when they occurred to me.
1. Why now?
In his internal memo making the case for Comey to be fired, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein pegged much of his argument on the Director’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. But, Comey announced that he wouldn’t bring charges against Clinton on July 5, 2016. And Trump praised Comey in late October for re-opening the Clinton investigation after more emails were found on a computer owned by top Clinton aide Huma Abedin and former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner. Trump has been president for 109 days. Why make the decision to get rid of Comey now rather than in January or February? There hasn’t been “new” news on the FBI investigation in that time. There’s no obvious catalyst here.
2. Why did Rosenstein write this memo?
The White House quickly released a memo from the deputy attorney general detailing Comey’s wrongs – and fireable offenses. Did Trump commission that report? Did Attorney General Jeff Sessions? If so, why? Was there something that triggered that review? Or did Rosenstein do it on his own accord? Reporting suggests that he did. But, why? And did he expect it to lead to Comey’s dismissal?
3. Did Trump know about the Flynn subpoenas?
Amid the barrage of coverage of the Comey firing, you might have missed this CNN exclusive: That associates of fired national security adviser Michael Flynn received grand jury subpoenas over the last few days. That represents a significant ramping up of the Justice Department investigation into Flynn and the broader attempts by Russia to meddle in the 2016 election. Our reporting suggests the subpoenas went out several days ago. Was Trump aware of that fact? If so, did it have any impact on the timing of his decision to fire Comey?
4. Did Comey really tell Trump – three times! – that he wasn’t under investigation?
In Trump’s publicly-released letter firing Comey, the president asserted that the now-former FBI director had “inform[ed] me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.” If that’s accurate, Comey would be breaking with a whole heck of a lot of protocol. So, when were these occasions? Does Comey corroborate them? If so, why did he do it? If not, then why did Trump say it? Is it possible Trump misunderstood conversations with Comey to be assertions that he wasn’t a target of an investigation? If so, how did he misunderstand that so badly?
5. Why didn’t Trump call Comey to tell him he was fired?
Trump built his reputation in American culture as the guy who would sit across a boardroom table from someone and tell them, “You’re fired.” He built his reputation as a politician on the idea that he would stand up to anyone and everyone – telling them exactly what he thought and why. So, why then did he send a former bodyguard to the FBI with the news that Comey had been fired? And why did he wait until Comey was in California before making the move? Why did Comey, who, whatever you think of his actions around the 2016 election, had served admirably and well, have to find out he was fired by seeing it on television like the rest of us?
6. How could the White House think this wouldn’t be a big deal?
One nugget from CNN’s Dana Bash jumped out at me last night: “Senior White House officials did not think the firing would be a big political explosion.” Um, what? Unseating the FBI Director in the midst of a Justice Department investigation into connections and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials might not be a big deal? Did the White House forget that Comey was effectively in charge of the Russia investigation because Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to recuse himself after not disclosing two meetings he had with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the course of the 2016 campaign? Firing an FBI director under ANY circumstances is a big deal. Doing it under these circumstances is a MASSIVE deal.
7. Why is there no Comey successor lined up?
The Trump White House is trying to have it both ways in their post-firing spin. Trump was decisive in that on the same day he received the memo from Rosenstein, he acted and fired Comey. Trump was thoughtful in that he made a considered decision based on a series of missteps by Comey. Both of those things can’t be true. And, if Trump was really preparing to make this decision for quite some time, why didn’t he have any sort of replacement for Comey lined up? Why did it feel as though he made a snap decision without much forethought or future planning over what it might mean?
8. Can the White House possibly avoid a special counsel now?
Trump had been adamant that the whole Russia story was a “total hoax.” And while Republican members of Congress didn’t go that far, there seemed to be little appetite on Capitol Hill to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Russia’s hacking of the 2016 election. Trump’s decision to fire Comey changes that calculus. Already Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr has said he is “troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination.” Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake tweeted this: “I’ve spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey’s firing. I just can’t do it.”
While some other Republicans have been more supportive of the firing – Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, for one – it’s difficult to imagine that the political pressure to support an independent counsel will grow unbearable at some point soon for Congressional Republicans. Of course, an independent counsel appointment requires presidential sign off. And who knows what Trump would do..