Michael Hayden: When Trump’s Washington starts to resemble Nicaragua
Ousted FBI Director Jim Comey and I have a history. We weren’t always on the same side of issues during the George W. Bush administration. Most famously, in March 2004, he opposed and threatened to resign over one aspect of the Terrorist Surveillance Program that I had been running since late 2001.
That said, I have always found Jim Comey to be principled. He has always been his own man. Indeed, some of his critics would claim that he has that last trait to excess.
That’s why I was comforted that he was running last year’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. It’s also why I thought he was the right person to run the current investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election and whether (or not) there was any collusion between the Russians and anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign.
The world got a glimpse of his principles (and his stubbornness) in late March during an open congressional hearing when Comey pointedly contradicted President Trump by saying that he had no knowledge that the phones at Trump Tower had been tapped. NSA Director Mike Rogers rounded out the denial that day by saying that neither NSA nor its British counterpart GCHQ had done it.
The public explanation for Comey’s dismissal was his handling of last summer’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. Then he cut himself loose from the senior leadership at the Department of Justice to decline prosecution, publicly humiliate the presidential candidate for being “extremely careless,” and then re-open and subsequently re-close the investigation within eleven days of the election.
I’ve second-guessed Comey on a lot of this, but I’ve always added that the FBI director was forced to work “off the map,” navigating uncharted territory, so critics might want to cut him a little slack. Indeed, candidate Trump made full use of the material Comey had provided him in last July’s critique of Clinton, and he later called the director “gutsy” for reopening the investigation in October.
If Tuesday’s firing was really about Comey’s performance last year, the time to let him go was January, during the transition, when every new president is given the chance (indeed, expected) to reboot the senior leadership of the government. Comey has done nothing to add or subtract from last year’s performance since the inauguration, except to unsurprisingly reiterate earlier this week that he has no regrets (and that the enormity of the issues sometimes made him a little sick).
And yet he is gone. And one suspects that last summer did indeed have something to do with it. Not because the president was suddenly seized with concern about how Clinton was handled, but perhaps out of fear that Comey could reprise his independent, attorney general-free performance this year as the Russia investigation advances.
One hopes that that investigation goes forward unimpeded. It is being run by FBI career professionals and they should demand and expect to get all the resources, focus, priority and attention they need from a new director. Comey was interested enough that he reportedly received routine, personal updates on the investigation.
Tuesday’s firing, though, will shake public and Congressional confidence in that effort and will light the fuse for a special prosecutor. I generally oppose those in favor of regular order, but today’s events may prove the exception. I certainly have a more open mind about it than I did at lunch.
There is also the question of truth to power and the effect this whole episode will have on the bureau and the rest of government. A lot has been made about the role of career professionals — what I call the permanent government, what Steve Bannon might label the deep state — in helping an impulsive, inexperienced, often fact-free, tweet-driven president to govern effectively. Today’s events suggest that may require more bureaucratic courage than we may have anticipated, indeed perhaps more bureaucratic courage than the bureaucracy can routinely muster.
In 110 days of governing, the Trump administration has fired a national security advisor, an acting attorney general, and an FBI director. The last two were let go shortly after publicly opposing an administration position. And in both cases they were proven right. The courts agreed with Sally Yates’ opposition to the immigration ban, and no one (except maybe Sean Hannity) believes that the FBI wiretapped Trump Tower.
With three high profile firings in quick succession, it’s beginning to feel a little bit like Nicaragua around here. A very pro-American European friend weighed in with me by email shortly after the White House announcement: “Astonishing. Your institutions appear to be in meltdown.”
He has a point.
Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.
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