WASHINGTON — Washington is buzzing with talk of Watergate. In a town nostalgic for the days when reporters didn’t run in packs and Republicans and Democrats would raise a pint together, many cannot resist the temptation to compare President Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey to President Richard Nixon’s 1973 Saturday Night Massacre, when a besieged executive fired a special prosecutor, prompting the resignations of the top two officials at the Justice Department.
Deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not want to feed the press corps’ yearning to be Woodward and Bernstein (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose investigation of Watergate for the Washington Post inspired a generation of would-be journalists) when she walked into a jammed briefing room Wednesday. The press corps wanted to know why Trump had soured on Comey.
After all, days before the 2016 election Trump praised Comey for having the “guts” to reopen an investigation, closed in July, into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “extremely careless” — Comey’s words — handling of classified emails. Two days before the election Comey announced the reopened investigation found nothing.
And in January, Trump said he respected Comey.
So why did the president fire Comey Tuesday after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote in a memo that Comey was in essence too gutsy?
Sanders answered that Trump liked Comey’s guts when “he was a candidate for president, not the president. Those are two very different things.” Trump had been thinking about replacing Comey since Election Day, she said.
Sanders later added that if Clinton had won in November, “she would have fired Comey immediately — and the very Democrats that are criticizing the president today would be dancing in the streets celebrating.”
Sanders has a point. Earlier this month, Clinton told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, “I was on the way to winning until the combination of Jim Comey’s letter on Oct. 28 (to Congress announcing the reopening of the investigation) and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me but got scared off.”
In December, then Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Comey cost Clinton the election and should resign. In November, now Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told the Huffington Post he had lost confidence in Comey and that he found the Oct. 28 letter “appalling.”
Comey also angered the right. The Wall Street Journal editorial page was appalled in July when Comey talked to the media about why the FBI would not charge Clinton. The Journal editorialized, “Mrs. Clinton deliberately sought to evade the Federal Records Act, recklessly flouted laws on handling classified information, spent a year lying about it, and will now have escaped accountability.” In short, partisans on both sides of the aisle thought Comey was a highly placed train wreck.
Comey didn’t help himself last week when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that former Clinton aide Huma Abedin “forwarded hundreds and thousands” of Clinton emails to the laptop of her husband, former Rep. Anthony Weiner. Comey got it wrong. On Tuesday the FBI sent a letter to Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to correct the record and stipulate that Abedin had forwarded or backed up 12 classified emails.
That error provided a solid opening for Trump to call out Comey — maybe even look him in the eye and fire him.
Instead, the president sent a nastygram across the country that was seen in the Los Angeles FBI office where Comey was about to speak. The breaking news announcement that Trump had canned him was so unexpected that Comey is said to have laughed at what he thought was a practical joke. When the top G-man got into a motorcade to the airport, local media trailed the motorcade as if Comey were O.J. Simpson.
Schumer and company do look like hypocrites for lamenting Trump’s firing of their former target. Perhaps the hypocrisy label would stick better to others if Trump had not praised Comey when it helped his campaign.
Worst of all, in firing the man in charge of the investigation into allegations that Trump campaign associates colluded with Russians, Trump brought into question the independence of federal law enforcement. In one impulsive act, the president gave credence to Democrats who have been calling for a special prosecutor.
The Comey dismissal, after all, followed Trump’s sacking of former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who opposed his travel ban, and former New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who also was in a position to investigate Trump. Three is rarely a good number in politics.
A person can believe that the Russian collusion story is unsubstantiated and that Comey deserved to be fired — and still wonder just what Trump was thinking.
Here is a timeline of the events that preceded his firing:
July 5, 2016: Comey announces he has recommended no criminal charges filed against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for her handling of classified information while she was secretary of state but calls her use of a private email server “extremely careless.”
July 5, 2016: Trump responds news on Twitter, calling Comey’s decision an example of a “rigged system” in the United States. “Very very unfair! As usual, bad judgment,” he tweets.
Oct. 28, 2016: Less than two weeks before the Nov. 8 presidential election, Comey announces in a letter to Congress that the FBI had learned of the existence of additional emails that appeared to pertain to the Clinton investigation and they would be reviewed to determine whether they contained classified information.
Oct. 31, 2016: Campaigning in Michigan, Trump exults over news of the reopened probe. “That was so bad what happened originally, and it took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had where they’re trying to protect her from criminal prosecution,” Trump said.
Feb. 13, 2017: Trump fires his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after only 24 days in office following disclosures that Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence about the contacts he had with Russian ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak.
March 20, 2017: Comey, in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, says the FBI had been investigating possible coordination between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia.
May 2, 2017: After Clinton said in New York that the Comey announcement threw the election for Trump, the president responds with a late-night series of tweets. “FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!” he says.
May 4, 2017: Comey, in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, says it made him “mildly nauseous” to think his announcement of the reopening of an investigation into Clinton’s emails affected the 2016 presidential election, but he had no regrets and would make the same decision again. He also defends his decision to reopen the Clinton probe.
May 9, 2017: White House spokesman Sean Spicer announces that Trump has accepted the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Comey. A letter provided to the news media from Rosenstein cites Comey’s handling of the Clinton probe.
Contact Debra J. Saunders at email@example.com or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.