President Donald Trump’s bombshell decision to fire FBI Director James Comey late Tuesday evening sent shockwaves through Washington and the American public.
Almost as soon as the news broke, comparisons between Comey’s firing and the events leading up Watergate started pouring in.
“President Trump’s firing of Director Comey sets a deeply alarming precedent as multiple investigations into possible Trump campaign or administration collusion with Russia remain ongoing, including an FBI investigation,” Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts said in a statement.
“This episode is disturbingly reminiscent of the Saturday Night Massacre during the Watergate scandal and the national turmoil that it caused.”
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said in a statement that “not since Watergate have our legal systems been so threatened, and our faith in the independence and integrity of those systems so shaken.”
But experts think that there are some ways in which Comey’s firing could be bigger than Watergate, and it hinges on Trump’s reasoning behind his decision to remove Comey.
Glenn Carle, a former CIA clandestine services officer and national security expert, said that if Trump fired Comey over his anger toward the FBI’s probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, that would be “catastrophic.”
“Watergate was huge, but it was based on a criminal charge. Trump firing Comey during the Russia investigation is borderline betrayal” and a critical threat to national security if it’s based on the Russia probe, Carle told Business Insider.
Richard Painter, who was the chief ethics lawyer for former President George W. Bush, also expressed suspicion toward Comey’s firing and said that the move on Trump’s part was an abuse of presidential power.
“We cannot tolerate this — for the president to be firing people who are investigating him and his campaign and its collusion with the Russians,” Painter told Rolling Stone.
“It’s a lot worse than Watergate,” he said. “Watergate was a third-rate burglary. It was purely domestic in nature. This situation involves Russian espionage, and we’ve got to find out who is collaborating.”
“We didn’t have to worry about treason in the Watergate situation,” Painter later told CNN.
The president, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and a number of Trump administration officials have emphasised that the Russia probe had nothing to do with Trump’s decision.
Comey, they say, was fired because he mishandled the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, and that lost him the president’s confidence.
But pundits and critics, as well as sp,e members of Trump’s circle, have cast doubt on that line of reasoning and said they were troubled by the timing of Comey’s firing.
Two advisers told Politico that Trump was furious over the Russia investigation, frustrated that he wasn’t able to control the media narrative around it, and asked why it wouldn’t disappear. One adviser said that the president would occasionally scream at the television when news clips related to the probe were airing.
Fox News host Charles Krauthammer called it “implausible,” adding that “if that was so offensive to the Trump administration, what you would have done during the transition is you would have spoken to Comey and said, ‘We’re going to let you go.'”
Based on the timing of Comey’s firing, “the obvious inference seems to be that Trump is upset about the investigation,” Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer at the CIA and NSA, told Business Insider.
“If it turns out that the Russia thing is bigger than, or as big as people have speculated, then this is a threat to democracy,” Deitz said, adding that if more evidence emerges of Trump associates’ ties to Russia, then Comey’s firing would “certainly be bigger than Watergate.”
But if Trump’s fury at the Russia probe was a motivation behind his decision to terminate Comey, he’ll likely be disappointed.
Regardless of whether or not Comey is spearheading the FBI, the department will continue to investigate ties between Trump associates and Russia, one FBI official told the New York Times on Wednesday.
And if anything, it’s likely Comey’s firing will further energize the investigation, in the same way that Archibald Cox’s firing did during the Watergate scandal.
“There are so many people now working on this issue, and this firing is going to do nothing but encourage that,” Deitz said, and added that Comey’s firing would “barely be a blip on the radar” of career professionals investigating the president’s associates.
Comey’s dismissal will also accelerate the steady drip of sensitive information being leaked to the press, Deitz said, and there already seems to be evidence of that.
Shortly after news broke that Comey had been fired, CNN learned that a grand jury had issued subpoenas to former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s associates. On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that Comey had asked the Department of Justice — which is led by Sessions and Rosenstein — for more resources for the Trump-Russia probe days before he was fired.
“People are going to be absolutely all over this Russia thing, just because they think nobody would do this unless there’s something really bad underneath it all,” Deitz said.
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