US Politics – OxPol
On May 9, President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey in a risky and largely unprecedented move. Initially, members of the Trump administration argued that Comey was fired because his incompetent handling of Hilary Clinton’s email scandal had cost him his legitimacy.
Why should President Trump dismiss the head of an agency that symbolizes the law enforcement integrity and rule of law that the American system is so proud of? Only one other FBI director has been fired in American history. In 1993, President Bill Clinton dismissed William Sessions, a Republican raid by the Ronald Reagan administration. As the Nixon Presidential Library tried to point out, even President Richard Nixon did not dare fire the FBI director during the Watergate scandal.
Theory and evidence suggest that Trump fired Comey because of their disparate interests. In particular, President Trump reckoned he would lose agency by keeping an FBI director who threatened the stability of his presidency.
Presidential systems like the United States give the executive many powers that other executives do not. Presidents have the privilege of changing their cabinet with minor restrictions and dismissing cabinet members at will. In this regard, cabinet assignments are a signal and a powerful tool that reflects the strategy of the policy a president intends to pursue. When a president intends to rule largely by decree, he appoints political outsiders, loyalists and technocrats to cabinet positions. Presidents, on the other hand, will appoint career leaders, including members of Congress, to gain their support if they want to rely more on lawmakers in making policy.
Changes to cabinets are made for three main reasons. The first are changing circumstances in an economic context. For example in economic crises. Second, political scandals, mismanagement or corruption can lead to a secretary being dismissed in order to ease pressure on the executive branch. Therefore, cabinet changes can be used as an “escape valve” for the president to regain control, credibility or a moral boost to the presidency. For this reason, President Trump changed his inner circle at the beginning of his presidency when he accepted the resignation of his National Security Advisor Michael Flynn after only 23 days in office in order to distance his administration from allegations of illegal connections to Russia.
Comey’s dismissal does not correspond to either of these two reasons. The FBI’s director’s dismissal can hardly be justified on economic grounds, and although the White House claims that Comey’s dismissal was due to mismanagement and lack of credibility, the evidence and theory suggest otherwise. Both Democrats and Republicans criticized Comey for his treatment of the investigation into Clinton’s private email server. However, none of these parties accused him of ethical misconduct or condemned him as a threat to law enforcement.
The White House justifies Comey’s dismissal on the grounds that he mismanaged the Clinton investigation. Still, FBI acting director Andrew McCabe recently testified that Comey is trusted by FBI officials. Similarly, Trump praised Comey’s actions and independence on the eve of the elections and after he was sworn in as president, albeit ambivalent in the past.
The dismissal corresponds to a third reason characteristic of cabinet changes. Presidents fire cabinet members when they feel they will lose the agency by keeping an agency chief as a member of their inner circle. In particular, if different interests between the president and a person lead to internal conflicts, jeopardize political goals or jeopardize the stability of the executive branch, the presidents can decide to dismiss a cabinet member.
Why could President Trump realize that he and Comey had different interests and that Comey’s presence threatened the stability of his presidency? The main reason could be that Comey, in his position as director of the FBI, was responsible for investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The same FBI director who took the bold move to reopen an investigation into the possible wrongdoing of a presidential candidate days before the election would undoubtedly have conducted an investigation into the links between Trump advisors and Russian officials. President Trump was aware of this situation and viewed the FBI investigation as a threat to his administration.
Indeed, statements by the President himself suggest that the Russia investigation played a large role in the decision to fire Comey.
Shortly after the release, Trump stated in an interview that he had made the decision to fire Comey regardless of the recommendations of the Assistant Attorney General. He also stated that his decision was based not on Comey’s loss of credibility, but in part on the Russia investigation. Finally, the New York Times reports that Trump called for allegiance and asked Comey to end the investigation between the Russian government and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
If the goal was to stop this investigation, Trump’s decision to fire Comey has failed. While the president may appoint a new FBI director with different immediate priorities and more closely linked to Trump, the issue of alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russian officials continues to play a major role in his presidency. The Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel to investigate possible collusion between President Trump’s advisors and Russian officials to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. These events commemorate Nixon’s efforts to dismiss the special prosecutor responsible for the Watergate burglary but ultimately step down as president.
While the final outcome is still unknown as events continue to unfold, it appears that Trump fired Comey because of the perceived threat he posed to the nascent government.
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 Mainwaring, Scott, and Mathew Soberg Shugart (Eds.). (1997). Presidentialism and Democracy in Latin America, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
 Str.m, K. (2000). “Delegation and Accountability in Parliamentary Democracies.” European Journal of Political Research, 37, 261-290.
Martínez-Gallardo, Cecilia. (2014). “Designing Cabinets: President’s Policy and Ministerial Instability.” Journal of Politics in Latin America, 6, 2, 3–38.