Trump's contacts with FBI Director James Comey break longstanding precedent
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will be questioned by the Senate Thursday, explaining why he recommended the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. Nathan Rousseau Smith (@fantasticmrntae) explains. Buzz60
WASHINGTON — When President Obama chose James Comey as the new director of the FBI four years ago, he made it clear that their final interview together would likely be their last personal, one-on-one meeting.
The exchange, according to a person familiar with the encounter, reflected Obama's understanding of the necessary distance that has traditionally shaped the relationship between the White House and an independent FBI – before Donald Trump.
Comey was settling in for what was supposed to be a 10-year term – a lengthy term designed to guard FBI directors' political independence – and Obama did not want to give even the appearance of influencing the nonpolitical law enforcement agency's investigations.
The account of Obama's meeting with Comey now stands in stark contrast to Trump’s unusual interactions with the FBI director he abruptly fired last week.
While Trump claims that Comey sought a dinner at the White House to appeal to keep his job as the FBI chief, it was the president who surprised Comey with the Jan. 27 invitation and expected him to show up the same day, said the person who is familiar with Comey’s version of the events but is not authorized to speak publicly. Comey, while uncomfortable with the arrangement, nonetheless accepted the president’s invitation as a courtesy, the person said.
However, the person said that under no circumstances did Comey assure the president that he was not a target of the ongoing FBI investigation into possible collusion between the campaign and Russian government officials. That would have amounted to a serious break in precedent guiding communications between the White House and FBI, especially involving a president whose campaign was at the center of an active investigation.
Trump's actions call into question his regard for an independent FBI – and may be a sign of how he intends to select a new leader of the federal government's premier law enforcement agency, which is in the middle of a growing Russia investigation.
White House aides have defended the president's solicitation of the then-FBI director at the dinner and in at least two subsequent telephone calls. Trump sought Comey's assurance that he was not a target of the Russia investigation, spokesman Sean Spicer has said, because he wanted to fight back against the false "narrative" of the Russia story.
Democratic lawmakers, including California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee which is also investigating the Russia hacks of political organizations during the presidential election, have seized on Trump's accounts of contacts – saying they smack of attempts to obstruct ongoing probes. Trump's own hints last week that he might have secretly recorded his meetings with Comey – a statement the White House refuses to confirm or deny –only fueled the political firestorm.
At the very least, the current outcry highlights why keeping a distance has been the long-held tradition between presidents and their leading investigator.
Former FBI Director William Webster said Monday that Trump's admitted communications with Comey represent a "surprising'' departure from long-established precedent. Outside of ceremonial events or deliberations on national security matters, such contacts are expected to "rare'' to avoid any appearance of conflict, Webster said.
"Unless something has changed that I'm not aware of, anytime the White House wanted to communicate something to the FBI, the (White House) contacts reported through the Department of Justice and the attorney general,'' said Webster, whose nine-year tenure at the FBI spanned the Carter and Reagan administrations. "Going through the attorney general was the general approach.''
One of the few times he could recall direct contact with the president when he was FBI director, Webster said, involved a telephone call from then-President Carter's who had "jurisdictional'' concerns about a developing issue on the U.S.-Canadian border.
Webster said even Carter seemed to acknowledge the rare occasion for such contact when he began the conversation by saying: "Now, Bill, I don't ask for much.'' Carter went on to request that additional FBI personnel be deployed to resolve the border matter, the former director said.
"It was nothing that involved him personally,'' Webster said. "I think he was calling me to help get somebody else off his back. I told him that I would look into it, and if we had jurisdiction we would act accordingly. I remember it (the contact) because it was so rare.''
Webster said Trump's apparent break with traditional guidelines is especially noteworthy as the administration begins the search for a successor to Comey.
While Trump is seeking the counsel of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the next FBI director is Trump's selection to make.
That person will take over the ongoing counterintelligence investigation into possible links between Russia and Trump campaign associates – an idea the president has already dismissed as a "hoax."
Trump also sparked more questions when, in a striking reversal, said last week that the Russia investigation was indeed on his mind when he fired Comey – and it wasn't just about his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server, as his aides and Justice Department leadership had previously stated.
"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," he told NBC. With this as a backdrop, Democrats are seizing on Trump's comments – and unusual engagement with Comey – to unite in their calls for a special prosecutor for the Russia investigation.
Briefly addressing the candidate search on Monday, Trump said that the process was "moving rapidly.'' At least eight potential candidates have participated in recent interviews with Sessions and Rosenstein. They are:
- Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a former Texas judge who now serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department and the FBI.
- Former Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., also a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and FBI agent. The FBI Agents Association Saturday endorsed Rogers for the post.
- Adam Lee, chief of the FBI's Richmond, Va., office who formerly oversaw the bureau's Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section.
- Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who also served as deputy director under Comey.
- U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson, appointed to the bench in 2002 by President George W. Bush. He also served as director of the U.S. Marshal's Service in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.
- Fran Townsend, a former chair of the Homeland Security Council and deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.
- New York Appeals Court Judge Michael Garcia, a former federal prosecutor who headed investigation into the prostitution ring that netted former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, prompting his resignation.
- Alice Fisher, a former chief of the Justice Department's Criminal Division in administration of George W. Bush.
No FBI director has ever been selected straight from the partisan ranks of elective office – so Cornyn's spot among the list of finalists has raised further questions about the independence of the process. However, candidates such as Rogers, a former FBI agent who later took political office, have drawn less scrutiny.
Justice officials said it was unclear whether additional candidates would be interviewed or that any of the eight would be called back for additional discussions.
Sessions and Rosenstein are expected to make a recommendation to the president. But even this process is raising concerns among Democrats who say Sessions should not be participating at all because he has recused himself from the Russia investigation.
Spicer dismissed those suggestions Monday, saying, "the process is running completely as it should." The White House, he added, does not see a need to appoint a special prosecutor to oversee the Russia investigation.
Whoever he chooses, the former FBI director Webster said, Trump should seek the assistance of attorneys who are familiar with the usual process guiding the interactions between the White House and the FBI. That, he said, could save him some trouble of bad optics.
"I don't think he spend a lot of time thinking about these relationships,'' Webster said. "I don't ascribe any mal-intent...I'm hoping that he gets a few people who understand how this is supposed to work.''