Opinion writer


President Trump’s Tuesday Night Massacre — his firing of FBI director James Comey — was such a brazen power play in the context of the FBI’s ongoing Russia probe that even some Republicans are troubled by it. While many Democrats are now calling for a special prosecutor to handle the Russia affair, a handful of Republican senators are also suggesting the timing of the firing was suspect; that the firing raises questions about whether further political interference will compromise the FBI’s investigation; or that an independent investigative mechanism must now take over.

These questions about the future integrity of the Russia probe are all serious and legitimate. But if those Republicans are truly as alarmed as their rhetoric suggests, there are concrete things they can do in the Senate right now that could help compel either a full accounting of the Comey firing, or an independent Russia probe, or both. And Democrats, too, can ratchet up the tactics in a big way to try to force GOP leaders to relent on both of these fronts.

Let’s first dispense with two absurd arguments about this mess. The White House says Trump acted quickly on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, whose explanatory letter faulted Comey for, among other things, holding a news conference to criticize Hillary Clinton while recommending against charges. But the Wall Street Journal reports that the White House was furious with Comey because he refused to tamp down talk of possible collusion between Russian election meddling and the Trump campaign, which the FBI is investigating. What’s more, Trump himself seized on Comey’s July criticism of Clinton to argue she was unfit to be president. Now that criticism is a problem? Yeah, right.

Trump also claims Democrats have no business attacking him for firing Comey, since they protested Comey’s conduct. But Democrats can still be furious with Comey’s handling of the newly discovered Clinton emails, while also pointing out that Trump’s firing of Comey is highly suspect and demands a special prosecutor.

Regardless, multiple GOP senators — such as John McCain, Bob Corker, Ben Sasse, Jeff Flake and Richard Burr — are also troubled by that firing. But they can do something more about this if they wish to. The FBI’s investigation will now be led by Rosenstein. But Benjamin Wittes and Susan Hennessey persuasively argue that the firing of Comey, amid an active investigation of his own campaign, “violates profoundly important norms of an independent, non-political FBI” and that Rosenstein, having already participated in this “tawdry episode,” can’t “credibly lead this investigation any longer,” necessitating an independent prosecutor.

Wittes and Hennessey add, however, that senators and members of Congress “have tools at their disposal” that could help compel the appointment of an independent prosecutor. I contacted Wittes, a legal observer at the Brookings Institution who runs the Lawfare blog, to ask what these might be.

Here’s what senators can actually do

Wittes suggested several ideas to me. He noted that, with all Democrats and a handful of Republicans upset about the Comey firing, there are enough senators “to create a blocking majority for the next FBI director,” who must be confirmed. This blocking majority, Wittes said, could theoretically condition its support for nominees to that post, insisting that the Justice Department produce a fuller accounting of the recommendation into the Comey firing or that the department appoint a special prosecutor on the Russia probe.

Alternatively, Wittes noted, individual senators — in either party, but especially in the majority — can employ other tactics to force the issue. They could try to oppose funding for various other Justice Department priorities or block other nominations to the department. “I would not give that cooperation until the Justice Department names a special prosecutor,” Wittes said.

Finally, Democrats — with or without a handful of Republican allies, but preferably with them — can basically try to grind the Senate to a halt, by refusing cooperation on any legislation or nominations or anything, until GOP leaders and/or the White House agree to some form of independent investigation. “Every time they’re asked to cooperate on something, this needs to be front and center,” Wittes says. “They needs to be focused like a laser beam on that every time they’re asked to give unanimous consent.”

Let’s be clear on one point: This isn’t simply about Trump. It’s also about our democracy. It isn’t just that the grounds for public confidence in the Russia probes are dwindling, whether it’s the FBI’s investigation or the ones being overseen by congressional Republicans, though that withering confidence does demand an independent probe. It’s also that we are trying to establish not just whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, but also the full story of what Russia did to interfere in the workings of our election, with or without the Trump campaign’s help. The intelligence community has explicitly concluded that Russia will try to do this again in future elections, so establishing what happened is key to averting a repeat of it. If the White House — or GOP congressional leaders — won’t investigate this seriously, then those in both parties who actually want a real probe need to step up.


* WHITE HOUSE CAN’T BACK UP KEY TRUMP ASSERTION: Trump’s letter firing Comey claims Comey told him three times that he (Trump) isn’t under investigation. But, pressed by Politico, the White House can’t back this up:

In his letter dismissing Comey, Trump said the FBI director had given him three private assurances that he wasn’t under investigation. The White House declined to say when those conversations happened — or why Comey would volunteer such information.

Now that’s a real shocker, isn’t it?

* EXPLANATION FOR FIRING STRAINS CREDULITY: The White House claims Trump acted on the recommendations in a letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who faulted Comey’s handling of the Clinton email probe. But as Jenna Johnson notes:

The news Tuesday was surprising for a number of reasons, especially since the president once delighted in Comey’s investigation of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

No kidding. Also, when Sean Spicer was asked whether Attorney General (and Trump campaign loyalist) Jeff Sessions was behind the recommendation, he referred the question to the Justice Department.

* TIME FOR A SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: Benjamin Wittes and Susan Hennessey argue that the Comey firing was a “horrifying breach” of the relationship between the White House and law enforcement:

While the President has legal authority to fire an FBI director, the fact that Trump has done so under circumstances of an active FBI investigation of the President’s own campaign violates profoundly important norms of an independent, non-political FBI. The situation … deeply threatens the integrity of and public confidence in ongoing law enforcement and intelligence operations … The question before us now is whether Trump will get away with it.

And he may well get away with it, unless we get a special prosecutor.

* COMPARISONS TO NIXON ABOUND: The Comey firing is being widely compared to Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” firing of special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. Even Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone is getting in on the action:

“Somewhere Dick Nixon is smiling,” Mr. Stone, who worked for Nixon and is among the Trump associates facing F.B.I. scrutiny, said in an interview. “Comey’s credibility was shot. The irony is that Trump watched him talk about bumbling the Hillary investigation, not the Russia investigation — and decided it was time to get rid of him.”

That’s not “irony,” Roger. The words you are groping for are “strains credulity,” or perhaps even “laughably transparent dishonesty.”

* VULNERABLE HOUSE REPUBLICANS START TO BREAK: Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) is now calling for an “independent investigation.” And Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) is calling for a “select committee.”

While both statements are carefully worded, Comstock’s in particular, note that they are two of the most vulnerable Republicans of the 2018 cycle — this suggests the politics of resisting an independent probe are getting more dicey.

* FBI FOCUS ON MICHAEL FLYNN INTENSIFIES: CNN reports that federal prosecutors have now issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who also served on the Trump campaign:

The subpoenas … were received by associates who worked with Flynn on contracts after he was forced out as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014, according to the people familiar with the investigation … Investigators have been looking into possible wrongdoing in how Flynn handled disclosures about payments from clients tied to foreign governments including Russia and Turkey … The Flynn inquiry is one piece of the broader investigation…

CNN notes that this is “the first sign of a significant escalation of activity” in the FBI’s broader probe into Russian meddling and possible Trump campaign collusion with it.

* THE TRUMP TWEET OF THE DAY, RANK MISDIRECTION EDITION: Trump rolls out this laughably dumb argument:

Apparently Trump thinks he can can count on his followers not to appreciate that Democrats can be angry at Comey’s conduct and question Trump’s motives for firing him at the same time.