- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
President Donald Trump’s sudden and shocking decision to fire FBI Director James Comey ratchets up the pressure on the congressional teams investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
While the official White House explanation linked the decision to Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email use, most critics will find that hard to accept. Comey’s Clinton-related activity was long in the past and, indeed, had been praised by candidate Trump just a few months ago.
Most critics will believe that Trump’s actions had more to do with the ongoing FBI investigations into possible ties between Trump associates and the Russians. They are already pointing to the coincidence of the firing coming in the same news cycle dominated by former acting Attorney General Sally Yates’s dramatic testimony to Senate investigators about her interactions with the White House on the Russian issue.
Yates’s testimony fanned the flames of the Senate investigation. And Trump’s firing of Comey poured a gallon of gasoline on that fire. Immediately and predictably, Senate Democrats demanded a full investigation. Republican Senators will be unlikely to block Comey from returning to testify.
The Russian issue, which was a cloud that hovered over Trump’s first 100 days increasingly looks like it will darken his second 100 days, and beyond.
Perhaps the Senate and House Committees can rise above the partisan pressures and conduct this investigation themselves, but the circus-like atmosphere of the Yates testimony, raises doubts. Yates’s appearance prompted Trump to tweet suggested questions for his supporters on the committee to ask, and the obvious partisan overtones underscored the damage this is doing to the administration’s capacity to act on the rest of Trump’s ambitious policy agenda.
The legitimate questions about what the Russians were doing cannot be fired away. Indeed, if Comey has damaging testimony to offer, he would seem to be even more of a threat as a former FBI director than as an acting one. Moreover, the hearings for his successor will be dominated by the same topic, and to be credible the next FBI director will have to promise to pursue the investigations no less vigorously than Comey did.
I think the way forward (and out) is the same one that struck me as obvious two months ago: a blue-ribbon independent commission patterned on the 9/11 Commission and empowered to give the American people a complete accounting of what foreign powers did to intervene in the 2016 election.
This may not have been what President Trump thought he was doing when he took this fateful step, but it is hard to see how else this story ends more favorably from the administration’s point of view. At this stage, an independent investigation may be the best way Trump has available to him to contain the fire.
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