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On the 20th of October, 1973, then US President Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the Special Prosecutor investigating Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal. Attorney General Elliot Richardson refused to carry out Nixon’s order, leading him and his deputy to resign. But what is known as the ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ only accelerated media attention towards the Watergate scandal, eventually causing congressional support for impeachment.
When President Donald Trump decided to fire James Comey, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, this week, echoes of Watergate rang in the background. The Saturday Night Massacre revealed a lot about the Watergate scandal. So, what does Comey’s firing reveal about the Trump-Russia scandal?
It’s important to note that the FBI directors have historically enjoyed job security regardless of who controls the White House. The position is supposed to be deeply non-partisan and served for terms of 10 years. Though the President has the power to fire the FBI director, it is very rare for the President to do so. Against this background, the Trump administration has a high burden to explain their decision to fire Comey.
The Trump administration maintains that Comey’s failure to adequately handle Hillary Clinton’s email scandal justified his sacking. However, many commentators are skeptical about this explanation.
When asked why Comey was fired, Trump said “in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.’”
Comey’s handling of Clinton’s email scandal arguably helped Trump become President. Just weeks out from the election, Comey sent a letter to Congress reopening the investigation into Clinton’s emails. Nate Silver from FiveThirtyEight believes this cost Clinton the election.
Finally, if it was Comey’s handling of Clinton’s email scandal that motivated Trump to sack him, why didn’t it happen earlier? According to The New York Times, Comey was asked after Trump’s inauguration to continue his tenure as FBI Director.
What changed? Comey began to show disloyalty to Trump.
Trump is a businessman that rewards loyalty. He succeeded in business (and on the Celebrity Apprentice) by firing everyone disloyal to him. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s influence in the White House is further proof of Trump’s paranoia and emphasis on loyalty.
Beginning with Comey’s reluctance to back up Trump’s claim that former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, it became clear that Comey wouldn’t blindly follow Trump’s agenda.
Comey also confirmed in March that he was leading an investigation into Trump’s connections to Russia during the 2016 presidential election. After Comey was fired, The New York Times reported that “days before he was fired, James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, asked the Justice Department for a significant increase in money and personnel for the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the Presidential Election, according to three officials with knowledge of his request.”
Trump would certainly prefer the FBI’s investigation to dissipate. But regardless of whether the investigation continues, Trump wants to be personally and publicly exonerated. Why? There are two possibilities. Either Trump was complicit in Russia’s involvement in the election and doesn’t want to be impeached, or he was genuinely in the dark and wants to improve his public image.
If Trump is guilty of collusion with Russia, then he’s committed an impeachable offense and fired Comey to appoint a less scrupulous FBI director and send a message to the intelligence community to not go sniffing around.
If Trump isn’t guilty of collusion with Russia, then he fired Comey to cull a disloyal adversary threatening the reputation of his presidency. But even if Trump had nothing to do with the Russian scandal, why would Trump fire an FBI director investigating his involvement in a well-known scandal? Surely he would anticipate the inevitable comparisons to Watergate.
No one knows if Trump actually colluded with Russia. But regardless of whether he did or not, this decision reflects badly on his presidency. As Elaine Kamarck from the Brookings Institute has said, Trump is either the most guilty president of all time or the most incompetent president of all time.