Adam B. Schiff, of California, is the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
In the wake of President Trump’s brazen interference with the independence of the FBI and the Justice Department, the country faces a crisis of confidence in the administration of justice not seen in more than four decades, and disturbing questions that demand immediate answers.
The firing of FBI Director James B. Comey offers Trump the ability to appoint a new director more beholden to him and perhaps more malleable than Comey, especially as it pertains to the investigation into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. That can’t be allowed to happen. The FBI must have a strong, independent director.
Given the president’s abiding and very literal conflict of interest in this case, Congress must also demand a full explanation of all the circumstances that led to Comey’s firing, as well as supporting documentation from the Justice Department, lest the integrity of our justice system be called into even greater question
In his letter dismissing Comey, the president thanked the director for thrice informing him that he was not under investigation. Because Comey had specifically refused to rule out an investigation of the president during testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the president’s representation is just that — a one-sided representation. Most of Trump’s claims on the Russia matter have been false — from the fully debunked assertion that President Barack Obama wiretapped him to his recent misrepresentation that former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. testified that there was no evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign. As a result, anything the president represents on the Russia investigation should not be taken at face value. And, of course, even if correct, the president’s campaign team is under investigation. Where that trail leads no one can be certain.
However, the president is not the only party in this case with serious conflicts of interest.
Indeed, the most troubling aspect of Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein’s otherwise fair critique of Comey’s actions during the Hillary Clinton email investigation is to whom his memorandum is addressed — Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who misled his colleagues in the Senate about his contacts with the Russian government and was rightly forced to recuse himself from any decision-making role in the Russia investigation.
Because Comey was leading the FBI investigation into allegations that Trump campaign associates may have colluded in the Russian hacking of our election, how is it appropriate for Sessions to play any part in the firing of the man leading the Russia probe? For all the attention that Rosenstein pays to Comey’s judgment and ethical obligations, he demonstrated no disquiet with the equally serious conflict of interest both Sessions and the president have in terminating the director while associates of the president are subjects of counterintelligence or criminal investigation.
Moreover, the stated rationale the White House has pushed for firing Comey is at odds with the president’s own words during the campaign. After Comey violated department policy by discussing the Clinton investigation only days before the election, Trump praised the director for shining a new spotlight on Clinton’s email troubles as Americans were heading to the polls. How were those actions praiseworthy then, and a firing offense now? Even for a president whose views are erratic and contradictory, the swiftness of his pivot on Comey is enough to induce vertigo.
All of this underscores the need for an independent prosecutor to oversee the FBI investigation. An independent prosecutor, or “special counsel,” of unimpeachable integrity should be appointed, after a selection process free from any real or perceived political influence. Given the taint accompanying the president’s decision, only this step will give the public any modicum of confidence that the investigation will be conducted fairly, rigorously and independent of political influence and interference. And while Congress continues to press forward with its own vigorous probe, the American people would likewise benefit from a congressionally empowered independent commission, fully staffed and immune from political pressure, to carry on a separate, nonpartisan review of the facts.
By firing Comey, Trump again has caused the public to wonder whether there is more here than meets the eye. To the long list of questions about his former national security adviser, his attorney general’s flawed testimony before the Senate and his campaign’s contacts with Russia, we must now add one more: Why, really, did the president fire James Comey?
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