There’s a plausible explanation for why James Comey just got fired—it’s just not what Trump said

Comey in May, days before he was fired.
Comey in May, days before he was fired.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Former FBI director James Comey made mistakes during his tenure, that much is clear. Many even believe he deserved to be punished for them. But the Trump administration’s stated reasons for firing Comey make no sense.

Comey was fired on the recommendations of both deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein and attorney general Jeff Sessions. In his letter explaining the decision, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein boils his argument down to two main points:

Firstly, Rosenstein argues that Comey got it wrong when he publicly announced the end of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails in July. At the time, Comey said the FBI didn’t recommend prosecuting Clinton, but nonetheless excoriated the “extremely careless” Democratic presidential candidate.

Rosenstein’s letter points out that it’s the job of the attorney general (or the acting attorney general, in case of recusal) to make these sorts of announcements. “The FBI director is never empowered to supplant federal prosecutors and assume command of the Justice Department,” Rosenstein wrote. By ignoring these rules, Comey acted outside the chain of command. Publicly criticizing Clinton made things worse: “We never release [derogatory information] gratuitously,” Rosenstein wrote. “It’s a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”

Second, Comey referred to his decision to announce a new investigation into Clinton’s emails in October as having the choice to either “speak” or “conceal” the truth. Rosenstein takes specific issue with the word “conceal:” “When federal agents and prosecutors quietly open a criminal investigation, we are not concealing anything; we are simply following the longstanding policy that we refrain from publicizing non-public information,” he wrote.

Both of Rosenstein’s points are valid ones. But that doesn’t mean Comey was fired because of them. For one thing, Trump’s team has had access to most of this information for months—including when Trump asked Comey to remain in his job. Meanwhile, swathes of Democrats—including Clinton herself—believe Comey’s actions in October helped swing the election in Trump’s favor. It seems highly unlikely that Trump would fire his FBI director for making an announcement credited with getting him elected president–six months after the fact. At the time, Trump even said Comey did “the right thing.”

All of which leaves us looking for the real reason Comey was fired today. Trump’s opponents were quick to posit their own theory: The administration doesn’t want a potentially loose cannon heading the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.

(The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. We will update if they do.)

Trump’s letter itself seemed to infer the Russia probe played a role: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”

Clinton’s former vice presidential candidate put it thus:

The Democrats’ ranking member on the House Oversight Committee didn’t mince words, either: “The White House was already covering up for [former national security adviser] Michael Flynn by refusing to provide a single document to Congress, and now the president fired the one independent person who was doing the most to investigate president Trump and his campaign,” representative Elijah Cummings said in a statement. Cummings also called for emergency hearings with attorney general Sessions, Rosenstein, and Comey.

Even some Republicans are publicly questioning how Comey’s dismissal will affect the Russia investigation: