Donald Trump’s decision to fire the FBI director, James Comey, who was investigating links between the president’s associates and the Russian government, has taken US democracy into dark and dangerous new territory. That was the assessment of Democratic leaders, legal observers and security experts last night, with some drawing direct comparisons to Watergate and tinpot dictatorships. FBI directors are given 10-year terms in office, precisely to insulate them from politics. It is very rare to fire them. The last time it happened was 24 years ago, when Bill Clinton sacked William Sessions, who had clung to office despite a damning internal ethics report detailing abuse of office, including the use of an FBI plane for family trips. Comey’s sacking has taken place in very different circumstances. It came on a night when CNN reported that a grand jury had issued subpoenas in the investigation of the Trump camp’s contacts with Russian officials, and after had confirmed to Congress that more than one person connected to the Trump campaign was the subject of an FBI counter-intelligence investigation. He had also indicated that he was investigating leaks from inside the FBI to the Trump campaign in the course of the election.
The New York Times has reported that Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was “charged with coming up with reasons to fire him”. The official reason offered was Comey’s handling of the enquiry into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server for classified information. Comey’s announcement in July 2016 that there would no be prosecution, while criticising the Democratic presidential candidate and her aides for being “extremely careless” in their handling of classified material, is singled out in a memo by the newly appointed deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.
In one of the first acts in his new job, Rosenstein said Comey had exceeded his authority with that announcement.
Comey was castigated from both sides for his handling of the Clinton emails. But Democrats were adamant on Tuesday that was not the real reason for his dismissal. It was pointed out that during the campaign, Trump and his team warmly praised Comey’s decision to speak up.