FBI directors aren’t fired every day. James Comey is only the second sitting director to be dismissed by a president. The first, William Sessions, was fired in 1993 by President Bill Clinton after Sessions was found to have committed ethical and professional misconduct. Comey appears to have been fired either because President Donald Trump was angry about the progress of the FBI probe into his administration’s ties to Russia. Or because the president was jealous of Comey’s media profile. Or because, as the White House (but few others) insist, Comey was too hard on Hillary Clinton during her email controversy last year.
Whatever the case, we now are less than 24 hours into a constitutional saga that could last well into summer. One immediate question: Who will Trump select to replace Comey? Will he choose someone with the professional experience and reputation for independence that can draw bipartisan support? Will he choose a political crony such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, or Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke? Or, more likely, will he choose someone who falls in between those two poles. While we wait, and while the job interviews begin in Washington (an interim director could be in place by the end of the day), here’s a reading guide to the best stories of the past day designed to offer context and perspective on an important story at the cross-section of criminal justice and politics.
What we know — and what we don’t.
We know the administration’s execution of the firing was chaotic. Here’s a good tick-tock from CNN of how it unfolded Tuesday. Trump was unhappy Tuesday night, according to Politico, as he watched coverage of the firing. And he had good reason to be, The Washington Post reported, judging by the hapless way in which the news was delivered and managed. Roll Call wrote that only a handful of lawmakers were informed of the firing, some just minutes before it occurred. Still, the White House tried to spin the move as decisive to the Los Angeles Times and others. It’s the latest example of a pattern for the Trump team when big news rollouts like this occur, The Week found.
We know, thanks to The New York Times, that Attorney General Jeff Sessions reportedly was commissioned a week ago to gin up justifications for Comey’s dismissal. This means a person who recused himself from the Russia investigation played a direct role in ousting a federal law enforcement official who was leading that investigation. Which is why Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is a key player in this drama (Washington Examiner) and not just because he wrote the memo Trump used to justify firing Comey, mused a former Justice Department official on Twitter. In the end, Comey had few political allies, Politico wrote.
We know that congressional reaction was mixed. Democrats were universally furious. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) predicts “more shoes to drop” on the Russia probe in The Hill. NBC News found many lawmakers were calling for a special prosecutor before the sun had set Tuesday. And there is plenty an alarmed Congress could do, if motivated (The Washington Post), even if Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) the majority leader, has endorsed Trump’s move, The New York Times reported. Some ask in The Hill: What did the president know and when did he know it?
We know, as The New Yorker wrote, that this is less like the “Saturday Night Massacre” than most people think. That is mainly because congressional Republicans 45 years ago were far more moderate and independent than they are today, according to Politico. Meanwhile, former federal officials have begun to weigh in, and the reviews aren’t good for the White House. Alberto Gonzales, who himself resigned amid scandal as attorney general under former President George W. Bush, says the timing of Comey’s dismissal is "certainly very curious." If it's intended to block the Russia probe, Gonzales told NPR, it is "wrong" and "foolhardy" because, like Watergate, "it's gonna come out." Former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, another Republican official during the Bush administration, said on The Takeaway this morning that it’s imperative the FBI protect its reputation for independence, especially as the Russia probe proceeds.
What we don’t know is how the saga will unfold and what impact it will have on the Russia investigation and the FBI’s other, more mundane activities, including old-fashioned criminal law enforcement. Comey’s tenure in Washington straddled administrations. He was a member of the Bush administration’s Justice Department a decade ago, then was hired as FBI Director by former President Barack Obama in 2013. They didn’t always see eye-to-eye. Comey pushed back against the some of the Obama administration’s efforts to scale back incarceration and lent his support to the notion that the “Ferguson Effect” was hindering policing. But he also endorsed federal sentencing reform, a position his successor, no matter who she or he turns out to be, is unlikely to emulate.