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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

US Republicans troubled by sacking of FBI director

As head of the bureau investigating both Hillary Clinton's email server and ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, Mr Comey irked both Democrats and Republicans.
FBI Director James Comey testifying before a Senate judiciary committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on May 3, 2017. On May 9, president Donald Trump fired him. Carolyn Kaster / AP
FBI Director James Comey testifying before a Senate judiciary committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on May 3, 2017. On May 9, president Donald Trump fired him. Carolyn Kaster / AP

Washington // J Edgar Hoover’s FBI once sent Martin Luther King a lengthy letter imploring the civil rights leader to commit suicide. This was part of a campaign in which informers, blackmail and wiretaps were used to undermine and discredit King, whom the FBI considered a threat to national security.

James Comey told a Georgetown audience in 2015 that he kept a copy of the FBI’s wiretap order on King on his desk to remind him of the responsibilities of his office. Hoover ran the FBI for 48 years. Mr Comey was fired as director of the FBI on Tuesday, three years into a ten-year term.

As head of the bureau investigating both Hillary Clinton’s email server and ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, Mr Comey irked both Democrats and Republicans. Last week, Ms Clinton again attributed her election loss to Mr Comey’s high-stakes decision to publicly reopen the investigation into her emails a few days before the election on November 8.

But as the chants of “Lock her up!” recede into electoral history, the FBI’s investigation into Mr Trump and Russia has come to the fore. Long-time Trump ally Roger Stone showed surprising prescience when he warned John Podesta, Mrs Clinton’s campaign chairman, that “it would soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Two months later, WikiLeaks splashed the hacked contents of Mr Podesta’s mailbox on its home page. Mr Stone denies advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ hack.

In a Tuesday press conference, Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat and Senate Minority Leader, asked of Mr Comey’s firing, “Why now?”. On Monday, former assistant attorney general Sally Yates testified to the Senate intelligence committee, outlining in detail what happened when she discovered that General Mike Flynn, then National Security Adviser, was “compromised” by his financial dealings with Russia and other foreign countries. She masterfully gave her evidence on Gen Flynn’s connections with Russia, and explained why it was problematic that the White House waited 16 days to fire Gen Flynn. As everyone who heard her testimony knows: Mr Trump had fired her, too.

Ms Yates’ bravura performance must have got inside Mr Trump’s head, as the next day he tweeted: “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?”. A few hours later, Mr Trump’s bodyguard hand-delivered a letter to the FBI firing its director, who was in Los Angeles, and learned of his dismissal by seeing it break on cable news.

Whether the Mr Comey firing hurts Mr Trump among Republicans remains to be seen.

Justin Amash, a libertarian Republican and occasional Trump critic, said on Tuesday he was in favour of appointing an independent legal inquiry into the president’s dealings with Russia. John McCain, Republican of Arizona and Russia hawk, repeated his call for an independent investigation, and Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was “troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination”.

But few Republican voices have the incentive or desire to speak out.

Susan Collins, considered among the more moderate Republican senators, described Mr Comey’s firing as “inevitable”, saying in a statement that “[a]ny suggestion that today’s announcement is somehow an effort to stop the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s attempt to influence the election last fall is misplaced.” With Republicans dominating both the House of Representatives and the Senate, Mr Trump is in no real political danger unless Republicans turn against him.

Where does this leave relations with Russia? After Mr Trump fired cruise missiles at Syria, observers were treated to diplomatic kabuki theatre, in which Russian diplomats strenuously objected to the strikes, and bemoaned a major deterioration in relations with the US. Not since the Cold War had things got this bad, Russian media said. Observers on Capitol Hill thought that Russia did protest too much.

More public expressions of mutual incomprehension, incompatible interests, and insuperable stumbling blocks were expected from Wednesday’s meeting between Mr Trump and Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister.

In 1973, Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor hired to investigate Watergate, leading to the resignations of Nixon’s attorney general and deputy attorney general. Yesterday, Democratic Senators lined up to describe Comey’s firing as “Nixonian”. Shortly afterwards, the Twitter account of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library shrugged off the comparison.

“FUN FACT”, it wrote — “President Nixon never fired the Director of the FBI.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae