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What were the reasons behind Donald Trump deciding to fire FBI Director James Comey?

If anything, Trump should have been happy with him, since he held that press conference about re-opening the Hillary investigation shortly before the election.

  • 1
    The press conference was in July. The October incident involved a letter he sent to Congress. – Colin May 10 '17 at 5:28
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    No one but Trump knows why. Possibly even he doesn't know. All we have is the "official" reason from a man known to prevaricate. (Even if his false statements weren't obvious, he's a politician, suspect by default.) – WGroleau May 10 '17 at 10:26
  • 3
    "may" leaves it pretty wide open for opinion and speculation. Not sure that edit improves the question. – PoloHoleSet May 10 '17 at 17:16
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    @Poloholeset See the comment above. No one but Trump knows why. Inherently many why questions are open to opinion and speculation. Using conjuntive voice only improves language. – Trilarion May 10 '17 at 19:12
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    @PoloHoleSet, Trump has now made two contradictory on the record statements about why he's fired Comey. If the issue continues to remain in the news, we can expect to see a few more contradictory reasons. – Mark May 12 '17 at 22:15
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The reason given publicly by members of the Trump administration was that Comey was dismissed due to the way he handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein stated in a letter that:

The Director was wrong to usurp the Attorney General's authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution. It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement. At most, the Director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors. The Director now defends his decision by asserting that he believed Attorney General Loretta Lynch had a conflict. But the FBI Director is never empowered to supplant federal prosecutors and assume command of the Justice Department. There is a well-established process for other officials to step in when a conflict requires the recusal of the Attorney General. On July 5, however, the Director announced his own conclusions about the nation's most sensitive criminal investigation, without authorization of duly appointed Justice Department leaders.

(emphasis mine)

There's a question regarding this and the answers there goes into detail on what was wrong with how he handled the investigation.


However, the timing of the dismissal raised some questions among Democratic and even some Republicans lawmakers.

According to an article by CNN:

And in a sign of possible trouble for the administration, Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who is leading a Senate intelligence committee probe into alleged Russian influence on the election, expressed disquiet at the firing of Comey, which he described as a "loss for the bureau and the nation.

"I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey's termination. I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee," Burr said.

(emphasis mine)

And an article by The Atlantic:

Comey’s dismissal is likely to raise questions about whether the White House is interfering in that investigation. In a letter from Trump informing Comey of his firing, the president suggested Comey had privately assured Trump he was not being scrutinized. “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgement of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” Trump said.

(emphasis mine)

So, what questions does it raise?

Due to the timing, some have suggested that the White House has interfered with the investigation into a possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign due to the timing of the firing. However, this is just a likely reason that's reported.

Comey recently confirmed during a testimony before the House Intelligence Committee that the FBI is investigating whether members of President Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign colluded with Russia to influence the election.

As President Trump repeatedly denounced the Russia story as “fake news.”, he might have fired Comey so that he could appoint a new FBI director to lead the investigation.

Second, Comey and his department have been investigating ties between the Russian government and the Trump camp for months. The investigation seems serious. Trump has now fired a man who was a major potential threat to his presidency.

(emphasis mine)

Source: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-did-trump-fire-comey/

Most recently, he denounced the investigation in a tweet less than 24 hours before dismissing Comey:

"The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?" -- Donald J. Trump on Twitter

Another reason this reason might be possible is that Trump briefly mentioned the investigation in his letter to Comey and seemingly tried to hint that it wasn't the factor:

While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.

However, the Trump administration has denied it:

The FBI has been investigating allegations that people involved with Trump's presidential campaign had undisclosed ties to Russia. But during a brief meeting with NBC News in the Oval Office on Tuesday evening, Trump said the Russia probe wasn't a factor in his decision.

(emphasis mine)


Some articles worth checking out:

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    It would probably be more accurate to say cripple the investigation instead of cover up. It's been quite public for a long time now so there's no way to hide it, but the next FBI director will be chosen by Trump and is likely to drop any serious investigative efforts. – Cyrus May 10 '17 at 5:47
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    Re the reference in that letter, it's remarkably crudely shoehorned in, don't you think? lol. – Lightness Races in Orbit May 10 '17 at 10:04
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    There's very little evidence to suggest Trump had any collusion with Russia during the elections. And this "Trump fired Comey in hopes to cripple the investigation" rhetoric is rather annoying. In that SAME token, Comey probably knew he would get fired. What better way to secure your job then to "open up an investigation" into the man who would fire you? He was universally hated by both the right and left because he's an incompetent FBI director. Anyone without political bias can see that he deserved to be fired. – jdmdevdotnet May 10 '17 at 18:07
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    @jdmdevdotnet As with many things involving Trump, the context in which he does things matters. Firing a questionable employee for unsatisfactory performance is pretty unremarkable. But that's not all this was. Firing an employee heading an investigation into you with probable cause for things which might amount to treason is extremely worrisome to everyone that's sane. It by no means guarantees he was fired because of the investigation in any way; but it is by no means unreasonable or unusual to think it possible and investigate it. I'd say it's a moral imperative to do so. – zibadawa timmy May 11 '17 at 13:39
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    We now have a statement from Trump himself that the Trump–Russia investigation was foremost in his mind when he decided to fire Comey. Partial transcript here, including “I just decided to [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.” Seems worth including. – KRyan May 12 '17 at 18:51
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Without discounting hidden motives1, the public one is more than enough.

Yes, Comey's mistake is perceived as having favored Trump greatly. That is why it is convenient for Trump to fire him.

You have a FBI director that made a big, publicly acknowledged, mistake:

  • Keeping him could be used as a way to attack him, by allowing to claim that he is allowing Comey to stay despite of his mistake as a reward.

  • Firing him invalidates those claims and might soften the opinion of some of Hillary's supporters. Also, he gets to appoint an FBI director. And all of that, at the small price of letting go someone who is mostly disliked by everybody (the Dems because of the October incident, the Reps because of the Russia probe).


1Russia investigation, leaks, he was appointed by Obama, etc... It is a distinct possibility, but I would prefer to see the profile of the person designated to replace Comey before making any claim in that direction.

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    The public one would be enough, for me, but not enough for a president being investigated by the FBI who previously praised the director for the very thing he claims to be firing him for now. – PoloHoleSet May 10 '17 at 17:17
  • @PoloHoleSet- Even if it helped him personally, he might still recognise that what Comey did was inappropriate and, as President, it could be a liability to have someone in that position who's not content to simply do what they're told. – PointlessSpike May 11 '17 at 10:54
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    This and probably all the answers here need to be updated to account for the new explanation that Trump has given that contradicts the old one. – JimmyJames May 12 '17 at 16:52
  • @PointlessSpike - "might be" - for a reasonable person, but this particular POTUS has stated the his dissatisfaction was not that Comey acted inappropriately, but he did not act even more inappropriately and go further. – PoloHoleSet Nov 29 '18 at 15:06
23

The official reasoning can be found inside the letters sent to President Trump. The most detailed, and notable, reasons come from Rod Rosenstein, Deputy Attorney General. I'm going to summarize Rosenstein's reasoning (it's a scan of the original so copy-paste quoting is impossible)

  1. Comey damaged the FBI's reputation and credibility
  2. Comey usurped the DOJ's prosecutorial discretion in stating that Hillary Clinton should not be prosecuted
  3. Comey held a press conference to announce the findings of the investigation, something the FBI generally does not do

It's important to note that, prior to yesterday's announcement, Comey was almost universally reviled by Democrats because the political wisdom was that Comey cost Clinton the election (see also Rosenstein's point #2)

Hillary Clinton would probably be president if FBI Director James Comey had not sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 28. The letter, which said the FBI had “learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” into the private email server that Clinton used as secretary of state, upended the news cycle and soon halved Clinton’s lead in the polls, imperiling her position in the Electoral College.

The real question, then, is this: Why now? (edited)

The original narrative was that Rosenstein was the main driving force behind Comey's firing. Details released today make it clear it was Trump's idea, which means there's no clear answer at all as to why he picked now to do it.

The president already had decided to fire Comey, according to this person. But in the meeting, several White House officials said Trump gave Sessions and Rosenstein a directive: to explain in writing the case against Comey.

As to the idea that the Russian probe was the reason, it doesn't fit very well. This firing had the opposite effect, with Democrats (and even some Republicans) calling for a special prosecutor. He's also angered some people at the FBI

Within the Justice Department and the FBI, the firing of Comey has left raw anger, and some fear, according to multiple officials. Thomas O’Connor, the president of the FBI Agents Association, called Comey’s firing “a gut punch. We didn’t see it coming, and we don’t think Director Comey did anything that would lead to this.’’

The best explanation that fits now? This is Trump being Trump. Consider the ill-fated travel-ban, which was hastily implemented and caused mass chaos. I don't think Trump thought this through (it's pretty rare that a President outright fires anyone, they typically ask for, and receive, a resignation, for reasons this firing has made obvious). Politico has this note

But senior aides and other associates who know the president say the firing was triggered not by any one event but rather by the president’s growing frustration with the Russia investigation, negative media coverage and the growing feeling that he couldn’t control Comey, who was a near-constant presence on television in recent days.

  • 5
    Except that Trump didn't need Rosenstein if he wanted to fire Comey. And it's beyond belief that Rosenstein would compose such a memo unprompted (or that Trump would act on it if it just showed up unsolicited on his desk), given Trump's glowing praise of Comey in the very recent past. Praise that was in fact for the exact things that Rosenstein's memo raised as dismissable conduct. A better explanation is that Trump is (maladroitly) seeking to derail the Russia investigation. – aroth May 10 '17 at 13:22
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    @aroth Possibly. Nothing in my answer precludes that. I'm only giving the official version, as well as speculation on the timing. But it's worth noting that Trump often states things and then acts conversely to them them days later, possibly as the result of internal conversations. Remember even Eric Holder was critical of Comey. A lot of career DOJ and FBI were unhappy with him – Machavity May 10 '17 at 13:35
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    The analysis I've seen of the Rosenstein letter pointed out that it quite suspiciously does not explicitly recommend Comey be fired. Perhaps that's because he didn't feel it his place to do so, but speculation has been that he was essentially ordered to lay out a case that could be used for that purpose. So I wouldn't necessarily lay this at his feet. – T.E.D. May 10 '17 at 13:51
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    I like that this answer presents factual information first, then adds speculation as a small footnote. This is the only answer I feel comfortable upvoting, no matter how much I suspect that higher-voted (but speculative) answers may be right. – Beofett May 10 '17 at 16:33
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    As to the idea that the Russian probe was the reason, it doesn't fit very well. This firing had the opposite effect… It didn't serve that end very well, but we could as easily conclude that Trump mispredicted people's reactions. – Jerry101 May 11 '17 at 23:34
21

Primarily, Trump was unhappy that Comey was investigating his administration's ties to Russia. As reported by Politico:

He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.

...

Trump had grown angry with the Russia investigation — particularly Comey admitting in front of the Senate that the FBI was investigating his campaign — and that the FBI director wouldn't support his claims that President Barack Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower.

As reported in the New York Times and on CNN, he ordered the Justice Department to find a rationale to fire Comey. They found that he could be fired for his conduct of the Clinton email investigation.

The rest is history.

  • 2
    This answer doesn't fail because of it's conclusion, but because of it's onesidedness and lack of completeness. While the Russian probe is certainly a more believeable reason than Comey doing what Trump called "the right thing" at the time, the other reasons need at least be explored (and possibly argued against) in a complete answer. – Peter May 13 '17 at 13:33
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    @Peter - It doesn't fail at all. Even Trump has now admitted in rough outline that everything in this answer is correct. "Balance" is only desirable if all sides presented have a reasonable chance to be correct. – T.E.D. May 18 '17 at 15:14
  • @T.E.D You're saying the answer is correct, because the conclusion seems to be right, in response to my comment that a good answer needs more than just the right conclusion. IMHO the right conclusion is not a good answer, only a good guess. We also learned that there are probably some other and possibly worse reasons, like the loyalty pledge story. – Peter May 18 '17 at 16:37
  • @Peter - It was not a "guess". It was based on reporting done by professionals at finding out the truth in matters like this. Anything else put in this answer that was not nearly as solidly based would have been far closer to "a guess". – T.E.D. May 18 '17 at 16:45
  • @T.E.D. In that case I guess all the other stories with alternate (or additional) explanations, some of which also ran on Politico, the NYT and CNN were done by unprofessional hacks. – Peter May 18 '17 at 17:51
12

Many earlier answers are now outdated, since Donald Trump admitted Thursday in his interview with Lester Holt that he had already decided to fire Comey before hearing from the Department of Justice:

LESTER HOLT: Monday you met with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosen --Rosenstein

DONALD TRUMP: Right.

LESTER HOLT: Did you ask for a recommendation?

DONALD TRUMP: Uh what I did is I was going to fire Comey -- my decision, it was not [OVER TALK]

LESTER HOLT: You had made the decision before they came in the room?

DONALD TRUMP: I-- I was going to fire Comey. Uh I-- there's no good time to do it by the way. Uh they-- they were-- [OVER TALK]

LESTER HOLT: Because you letter you said I-- I, I accepted their recommendation, so you had already made the decision

DONALD TRUMP: Oh I was gonna fire regardless of recommendation-

LESTER HOLT: So there was-- [OVER TALK]

DONALD TRUMP: He made-- he made a recommendation, he's highly respected, very good guy, very smart guy, uh the Democrats like him, the Republicans like him, uh he made a recommendation but regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey knowing, there was no good time to do it. And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won. And the reason they should have won it is the electoral college is almost impossible for a Republican to win. Very hard. Because you start off at such a disadvantage. So everybody was thinking, they should have won the election. This was an excuse for having lost an election.

There are some that are interpreting this as an admission of obstruction of justice, while others say that isn't so clear.

Other aspects of the White House's letter have since been contradicted, like the now-acting FBI director McCabe's testimony to Congress that Comey "enjoyed broad support within the FBI".

New stories are breaking all the time that may shed some light on Trump's reasons to fire Comey, like Trumps anger about leaks and this one claiming that Trump Demanded a Loyalty Pledge from Comey, who refused:

As they ate, the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and the crowd sizes at Mr. Trump’s rallies. The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him.

Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, Mr. Comey has recounted to others, he told Mr. Trump that he would always be honest with him, but that he was not “reliable” in the conventional political sense.

Suffice it to say that our understanding of this event and the reasons behind it (and the fallout from it) will continue to develop over time.

  • 1
    Let's add that given past experience with the accuracy of Trump's statements, we can't assume the previous versions are untrue just because Trump offers yet another version. All we can do is conclude with certainty is that the administration for some reason didn't want the actual reason to be known, and that we should probably ignore all of the "official" reasons. – Peter May 13 '17 at 13:41
  • Trump was also reportedly enraged by Comey's statement of concern to Congress that his October reopening of the Clinton email investigation affected the election – Colin May 13 '17 at 16:05
  • @Peter, what an odd thing to say. Trump is so open about his reasons he's criticized for having no sense of propriety or security. Can you please make up your mind? Is Trump a brilliant statesman with a total ability to conceal his true motives, or is he a novice? You can't have it both ways. – Wildcard May 14 '17 at 2:52
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    @wildcard I didn't claim either of the 2 options you provide. I merely mentioned that Trump's statements, on average, tend to be less accurate, and have peen disproven more often, than those of an average politician. Thus all of his statements have lower than average credibility. If that's brilliance or being a novice I can't say, but it seems to work for him and his base. – Peter May 14 '17 at 6:57
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    @Peter I'm fully on board the "you can't believe anything Trump says" train, but if you go that route you'd have to include the original (absurd) reason stated in his letter. The idea that he thought bad of Comey because of Comey's actions against Clinton is not only laughable on its face, it's directly contradicted by Trumps statements at the time (calling him "brave" for "doing the right thing", etc.). – BradC May 15 '17 at 13:28
9

If anything, Trump should have been happy with him, since he held that press conference about re-opening the Hillary investigation shortly before the election.

Donald Trump was happy with him that day. But then James Comey closed the investigation again, possibly costing Trump a popular vote victory. (True or not, this is how Trump perceives the world.)

One narrative would be that with Hillary Clinton claiming that it was Comey that beat her, not Trump, that Trump wanted to show that he could still be president without Comey. Obviously that's ridiculous if evaluated intellectually. But emotionally this could be Trump's way of saying that Comey does him no favors.

The Trump administration claims that it was Comey's behavior surrounding the Clinton investigation. First he said that she shouldn't be prosecuted. Then he gave a list of all the things that she did wrong. Then he testified before Congress and gave the fateful promise that he'd let them know if anything came up. Then something came up and he let them know. Then he finished that aspect of the investigation again and let everyone know that. In the course of all that, he left no one happy.

There is also some reason to believe that Comey has not acknowledged his initial mistake in that (standing in for Lynch in ending the investigation). From the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein Memorandum:

I do not understand his continued refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the Director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.

Another possibility is that Trump holds him responsible for the continued leaks that are emerging. This would be consistent with Trump's statement that Comey is "not able to effectively lead the Bureau." Note also that Trump thanks Comey for informing Trump (three times) that he was "not under investigation." That could be a catty way of saying that he wouldn't have had to do so if people hadn't been leaking untruths to the press.

A third possibility is that Trump was in some way concerned about the Russia investigation. The sinister possibility is that Trump is worried about being implicated. A more benign possibility is that Trump simply wanted the investigation finished expeditiously without additional leaks. Of course we don't know what Trump was actually thinking. We can only evaluate his public statements and actions. This may empower those calling for a special prosecutor.

It's possible that Trump thought that this would be viewed through a bipartisan lens. After all, Democrats have been outspoken in criticizing Comey. Whatever Trump's own issues, he might have been under the impression that Democrats would at least say good riddance.

protected by Community May 10 '17 at 23:23

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