Editorial

Firing the FBI director an unforced error

Sunday, May 14, 2017

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The dismissal last week of the director of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is an unforced error by President Donald Trump because the timing makes it difficult to convince Americans and the world that it was justified.US presidents have the constitutional right to fire federal executives under their command, as is the case with Director James Comey who works for the Department of Justice. However, because of the rarity of terminating a director of the FBI, how the matter is handled is critical to the credibility of the decision.

The original reason given in a letter from the deputy attorney general was that it was for Mr Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail saga during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Readers will recall that the FBI head found that Mrs Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, had done nothing criminal for which she could be prosecuted, although he described her use of a private e-mail server with classified information as reckless.

Having closed that chapter, he then reappeared within days of the November 8 election to say more e-mail belonging to Mrs Clinton had been found on the laptop of the husband of one of her closest aides, thus the need to reopen the investigation. Democrats and Mrs Clinton have blamed her loss on that move by Mr Comey.

But the reason given by the Administration was immediately questioned on grounds that Mr Trump and his supporters had cheered the Comey decision at the time, while Democrats had condemned it. Getting anyone to believe that there was genuine concern about what had befallen Mrs Clinton and the Democrats was a long shot.

If the Republicans are being hypocritical in positing that as the reason, then the Democrats are equally hypocritical for now being supportive of Mr Comey. But then, that is politics, isn't it?

Those who doubted the sincerity of the reason felt justified after Mr Trump, in an interview with MSNBC journalist Lester Holt, said that he would have fired Mr Comey in any event, and that the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the US election and collusion by the Trump campaign in his favour was on his mind.

The US president has long dismissed the allegations of Russian shenanigans as an excuse by the Democrats to cover their electoral loss, and he seemed to suggest that was the real reason he fired Mr Comey.

The error made by Mr Trump was mainly in the timing, because his opponents are now contending that he got rid of the FBI director because he wanted to close down the investigations into his campaign.

Whether one is for or against the decision to fire Mr Comey, this is a case where the perception of self-interest is more powerful than the reality.

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