The President's firing of Director Comey is a smoke signal. And where there's smoke, there's fire. And this is a bonfire.
— Seth Moulton (@sethmoulton) May 9, 2017
Democrats think now-fired FBI Director James Comey cost them the presidential election. But hardly any Democrats in Congress are celebrating the fact that he's gone.
Comey was leading the investigation into whether Trump campaign associates colluded with Russia to try to help Trump win the election in 2016. For all of Comey's sins in the eyes of Democrats — re-upping Hillary Clinton's emails 11 days before the presidential election, not announcing the FBI's investigation into Trump earlier — he was the best FBI director they were going to get in the Trump administration.
And by "best," we mean most apolitical. As my colleague Aaron Blake wrote this week, Comey had a reputation as an aggressively apolitical public servant who, yes, sometimes made mistakes that upset the politicians (and potentially had massive political repercussions).
That reputation was fraying during the campaign, but it got absolutely shredded Tuesday when we learned that Comey told Congress it found "hundreds and thousands" of Clinton emails on the computer of disgraced sexting congressman (and ex-husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin) Anthony Weiner. Turns out there were just several.
It was the excuse Trump was looking for to fire Comey. And Democrats, as much as they probably would have liked to fire Comey, too, know they just lost one of their best chances for an apolitical investigation into Trump-Russia connections. Whomever Trump nominates only has to clear a majority vote in the Senate (as opposed to a 60-vote filibuster that until 2013 was the norm for these kinds of positions). Republicans have a slim majority and could conceivably approve a Trump nominee over every single Senate Democrat's objections.
(Though Trump's pick is not a given. Some top Republicans in both chambers are urging the president to choose someone "independent minded." And not everyone in the GOP agreed that Comey needed to go. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to NBC: "I regret that that took place." Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee says he's "troubled by the timing and reasoning" of Comey's firing. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) urged the president to pick someone "independent minded.")
Minutes after news broke that Comey was out, Democrats essentially gave up on getting someone "independent minded" on the FBI. They amped up their calls for an independent investigation, i.e., one not beholden to Congress or the Trump administration.
"If Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein does not appoint an independent special prosecutor," Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a news conference, "every American will rightly suspect that the decision to fire Director Comey was part of a coverup."
This stunning breaking news of the White House firing of FBI Dir Comey shows why we must have a Special Prosecutor like in Watergate.
— Brendan Boyle (@RepBrendanBoyle) May 9, 2017
— Steve Cohen (@RepCohen) May 9, 2017
That's not likely. It would take an act of Congress to set up an independent investigation as it did after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And we've seen zero indication from Republican leaders in Congress that they want to vote to start a high-profile committee to investigate the president of their own party.
Congress or a Trump administration could also pick a special prosecutor — usually outside the confines of government — to investigate potential wrongdoing, and, if it finds it, prosecute. But, yeah, for the reasons above, that's also not likely to happen — unless the political dynamics in Congress change drastically before and after Comey's firing, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress suddenly find themselves on the same team, Trump on another.
(Various committees in Congress are also looking into all this but with varying degrees of success.)
The fact Democrats have so few options to restart the Russia investigation now that Comey is out helps explain why some immediately made some pretty eyebrow-raising accusations about why Trump fired Comey. Here's Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.):
Firing Comey has the foul stench of an attempt to stop an ongoing investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
— Chris Van Hollen (@ChrisVanHollen) May 9, 2017
And here's Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who is up for a potentially competitive reelection in 2018:
This is Nixonian. Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein must immediately appoint a special prosecutor to continue the Trump/Russia investigation.
— Senator Bob Casey (@SenBobCasey) May 9, 2017
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who was on the ticket with Clinton in November:
Trump firing Comey shows how frightened the Admin is over Russia investigation
— Senator Tim Kaine (@timkaine) May 9, 2017
Longtime Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.):
Trump fires FBI Dir Comey. Maybe he was getting too close to the Russia connection?
— Gerry Connolly (@GerryConnolly) May 9, 2017
I could keep going:
#Comey error slight. Emails got to Weiner laptop via “back-up of devices” rather than “forwarding of email.” What’s real reason for firing?
— Rep. Brad Sherman (@BradSherman) May 9, 2017
We are in a full-fledged constitutional crisis.
— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) May 9, 2017
If the Democratic rhetoric sounds extreme, that's because casting serious doubt on Trump and his intentions is really the only play Democrats have left. Democrats may hate Comey, but for the sake of the Trump-Russia investigation, they definitely didn't want to see him go.