Late afternoon on Tuesday, the news came out of Washington that Donald Trump had unceremoniously fired FBI Director James Comey. Comey himself was in the Los Angeles FBI field office at the time and discovered the news as many of us did: on television.
Comey's firing was a culmination of Trump's deep frustration at the persistence of the Russia story. According to Politico, Trump reportedly was extremely frustrated that Comey had confirmed the FBI was investigating him and his associates, and that further Comey would not confirm Trump's claim that President Obama had wiretapped him. Even so, many in the White House appeared just as surprised as Comey at the news of his firing. "Nobody really knew," one senior White House official said. "Our phones all buzzed and people said, What?"
Comey's firing also came the same day as it was publicly revealed that federal prosecutors, working with one or more grand juries, issued subpoenas to associates of Michael Flynn, seeking business records as part of the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. According to CNN, this marks "the first sign of a significant escalation of activity in the FBI's broader investigation begun last July into possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia." This is seen as a blow to Trump, who had hoped dismissal of Comey might put a crimp in public inquiry into possible collusion between his campaign and the Russians during the election.
Trump reportedly considered his firing of Comey as a win-win, something both sides of the political aisle could get behind. That would prove to be a major miscalculation. Calls to Senators prior to the news breaking resulted in little support, and the White House appeared unprepared to react and respond to the firestorm that would result from the announcement. Sean Spicer reportedly was scrambling for three hours to react to the news. It wasn't until Snator Schumer publicly called for a special prosecutor Tuesday evening that the White House seemed to devise a press strategy and deployed communications staff to defend the President's move.
Deputy Communications Director Sarah Huckabee Sanders went on Fox News to declare that it's "time to move on" and that "there's no there there" even as the announcement seemed to throw gasoline on the flames of the investigation. The firing appeared to solidify Democrats' resolve in calling for a special prosecutor into the Russia investigation, with Republicansnow joining the chorus. The common refrain coming from analysts was that the move was "Nixonian," even prompting the Nixon Library to clarify that not even Nixon had fired his own FBI Director.
The firing came the same day the FBI announced Comey had given inaccurate information to Congress about the number of emails Huma Abedin had forwarded to her then husband, Anthony Weiner. This was the basis of the administration's stated reason for Comey's firing, as laid out in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's letter to Trump:
"I cannot defend the Director's handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton's emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the Director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives."'
But this reasoning appeared strained considering Trump's vocal support of Comey during his campaign and the fact that Comey's actions are largely seen as having helped deliver the White House to Mr. Trump. Critics also saw the lack of any reference to the Russia probe in Rosenstein's letter as a transparent ploy to allow Attorney General Sessions to be involved. Sessions had recused himself from the Russia investigation after it was revealed he misled Congress during his confirmation hearing as to his own contacts with Russians.
If Donald Trump thought firing James Comey would make the entire Russia matter go away, this also seems to be a bad miscalculation. Instead, this latest move seems to have only emboldened opponents of the Trump administration even as the Russia investigation escalates.