Why Firing FBI Director James Comey Could Create Major Problems for President Donald Trump

Trump Comey
President Donald Trump speaks during a visit to the world headquarters of Snap-on Inc., a tool manufacturer, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on April 18. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

One month ago, Donald Trump spoke to Fox Business about FBI Director James Comey. "I have confidence in him," he said. "We'll see what happens. You know, it's going to be interesting."

So it has been. Trump's firing of the FBI director on May 9 left official Washington stunned. It is only the second time in American history that a president has fired an FBI director. Democrats who loathed Comey for the way he handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server during the 2016 presidential campaign—Clinton said last week it was one of the reasons she lost—are now outraged that he is gone.

Several Senate Democrats called Trump's action "Nixonian," conjuring up the infamous "Saturday Night Massacre" in 1973, when President Richard Nixon fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox during the Watergate investigation. (Nixon ordered his attorney general at the time, Elliott Richardson, to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned, as did his deputy.) Watergate ended in Nixon's resignation, and Democrats hope that Russiagate—the Trump administration's alleged collusion with Moscow to win last year's election—will bring down this administration.

Related: Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey a test for new deputy attorney general

The ongoing Trump-Russia probes have driven the White House to distraction. Administration officials believe, as they have often said—and repeated again on Tuesday—that "there is no there there," as one White House official puts it. Trump believes the only "crime" committed in the context of the Russian investigation was the leak of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition.

Also, Trump was angry that during Comey's recent congressional testimony he refused to say there was an investigation into the leak, while confirming the probe into the Trump's campaign alleged collusion with Moscow. That's why Trump tweeted on May 8, before the testimony of former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, that they should be asked under oath whether they leaked the information about the Flynn-Kislyak conversation. (They were asked the question, and both denied it.)

Trump is also angry at what he believes is a lack of FBI interest in who in his campaign, other than Flynn, might have been "unmasked"—and why—in raw intelligence reports in the last months of the Obama administration. (The names of Americans talking to foreign officials in intelligence reports are redacted unless consumers of the intelligence request that their identities be revealed.)

Publicly, the White House insists that the main reason Trump fired Comey was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's letter outlining the FBI director's numerous missteps handling the Clinton emails investigation. The letter is damning. But Rosenstein, to whom the FBI director reports, was confirmed only 15 days ago, the information in his letter is not new, and no Democrat believes the president fired Comey because of how he handled the emails probe.

On July 5, 2016, when Comey said "no reasonable prosecutor" would bring a case against Clinton, Trump and the Republicans were furious. When he announced just before the election that he was re-opening the case, thanks to the emails Huma Abedin forwarded to her husband, Anthony Weiner, he praised Comey's "guts." The Democratic reaction, of course, was precisely the opposite. (The FBI has now said Comey greatly exaggerated the number of emails Abedin forwarded.)

Trump's immediate political problem is that it's not just Democrats who are complaining about the Comey firing. The Republican head of the Senate intelligence committee, Richard Burr of North Carolina, said he was "troubled" by the timing—in the middle of his committee's investigation into the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.

As Burr put it, Comey's "dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the committee. In my interactions with the director and with the bureau under his leadership, he and the FBI have always been straightforward with our committee. Director Comey has been more forthcoming with information than any FBI director I can recall in my tenure on the congressional intelligence committees. His dismissal, I believe, is a loss for the bureau and the nation."

Burr's statement, in the poisonous political environment that is Washington in 2017, may carry significant weight. Trump obviously wants no part of an independent investigation into his campaign's alleged Russia connections. But if more sober Republicans echo Burr, the pressure will build. The same official—Rosenstein—who wrote the letter that was ostensibly the basis for Comey's dismissal (because his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has recused himself from the Russian investigation) will now decide if a special prosecutor will be appointed. Watch that space.

To date, there has been no evidence available to the public that the Trump campaign "colluded" with Russia to sway last year's election. That, for the moment, separates what happened on Tuesday with what happened with Nixon in 1973. But make no mistake: Trump's firing of Comey made a political issue that was already red-hot into a bright white flame. Why that was in the White House's interest is a mystery.