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Trump's firing of F.B.I. Director James Comey harks back to the days of Watergate


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In 1973, US President Richard Nixon ordered the firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. He was overseeing the investigation regarding the Watergate scandal - in which Nixon was a culprit, something Cox was trying to verify.

The order was first given to Attorney General Elliot Richardson, who refused and resigned. Next in line was the Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus - but he also preferred resigning then to partake in what seemed to be an inappropriate and an undemocratic firing, and the event is now referred to as the Saturday Night Massacre.

On Tuesday, without warning, Trump fired F.B.I. director James Comey. The latter learned about it while giving a speech to his staff when a television in the background announced the breaking news. Comey laughed, thinking it was a joke. He was in the midst of overseeing an investigation on whether Trump’s Presidential campaign was complicit to the government of Russia’s interference in the elections.

Whereas it took the resignation of two deputies general in Nixon’s case (Acting Attorney General Robert Bork finally carried out the order), Trump’s dismissal of Comey was carried out, according to the White House, “on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions”.

F.B.I. directors are appointed for ten-year terms, which assures their position goes beyond biased political and personal opinions. Comey still had six years to go, and Trump is now free to choose who will run the Bureau, and that person will in turn have the authority to close down the investigation Comey was overseeing.

In his letter to Comey, Trump wrote, “[I] concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau. It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission." It is true that Comey was responsible for several mishaps over the past year. Mostly, he is accused of damaging the F.B.I reputation, in part by his mishandling of the Clinton emails investigation.

In his memorandum in which he recommends the firing, Rosenstein criticizes two actions of Comey in its regard. First, he writes that Comey should not have given a press conference in July to announce the Bureau would not recommend Clinton for any criminal charges, which is usually the Attorney General’s decision to make. He also criticized Comey’s decision to send a letter just days before the presidential elections, in which he revealed newly discovered Clinton emails. In fact, this action was largely condemned, as it potentially influenced voters right before Election Day and broke the F.B.I.’s tradition to not get involved in elections.  

However, these actions were carried out months ago, and the timing of Comey’s firing seems suspicious. In fact, Trump had previously praised Comey. Regarding the letter about the new Clinton emails, he said: “It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had”. However, Comey also dismissed Trump’s tweets that Obama had wiretapped his phones, claiming "I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the F.B.I.", which may have put a strain on their relations.

Numerous members of Congress - both Democrats and Republicans - are calling for the Russian investigation to be taken over by an independent special prosecutor, for it not to be clouded by any biased institute or person. If we parallel the firing to Cox’s, and if we take into account Trump’s presidency so far (his anti-constitutional travel ban, hiring some of his family members to the White House), it’s easy to wonder if Comey’s firing may have been undemocratic, and if Trump did it because the Russian investigation was closing in on him.

If this is the case, it is important not to let this pass and to see it for what it is - an abuse of power and a violation of American democracy. If Nixon’s firing of Cox is remembered as a “massacre,” then Comey’s firing - if proven to have been done for a personal agenda - should be remembered in a similar light.

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