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Trump Wades Into Uncharted Waters With Comey Ouster

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter
Image: FBI Director Comey Testifies At Senate Judiciary Committee Oversight Hearing
FBI Director James Comey testifies in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 3.Eric Thayer / Getty Images

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter

Trump wades into uncharted waters with Comey firing

Every time President Trump has faced the choice between advancing his own interests and upholding the country’s separation of powers, traditions and norms, he’s picked the former. Consider

  • He attacked the judges who ruled against his travel ban;
  • He said he was thinking about breaking up the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals;
  • He alleged that millions voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election (as a way to justify losing the popular vote);
  • He never divested from his business to remove any conflicts of interest, and refuses to release his taxes;
  • He claimed that his predecessor, Barack Obama, wiretapped him;
  • His White House shared information with Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who had been leading the House Intelligence Committee’s probe into Russia;
  • He said Washington needs a “good shutdown” in September, responding to the perception that congressional Democrats rolled over the White House and GOP in the recent spending deal;
  • And just last week, he tweeted that FBI Director James Comey “was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton” and called the FBI’s investigation into Russia and its possible ties to the Trump campaign “phony.”

That’s maybe the best way to view Trump’s decision on Tuesday to fire Comey, whose FBI was investigating Russia’s interference into the 2016 campaign — and whether the Trump campaign had contacts with Russian entities. You could make a reasonable case to oust Comey; after all, he had angered both Democrats and Republicans. But you also could see that firing the man who was leading the agency investigating your 2016 campaign would create considerable backlash — and would potentially compromise that investigation. Bottom line: There’s a Trump pattern of protecting himself, even when it comes at the expense of norms and deep traditions. “He sees the federal government as a whole as personally subordinate to himself, exactly like his business,” liberal writer Jonathan Chait contends. And on MSNBC last night, former FBI special agent Clint Watts added that, for Trump, it’s never “America First” — it’s “Trump First.”

Don’t forget the time Trump attacked the man who’s now the acting FBI director

And there’s another example of Trump trying to smash separations of powers/traditions/norms: During the campaign, Trump attacked the man who’s now the acting FBI director — Andrew McCabe. NBC’s Anthony Terrell reminds us that Trump attacked McCabe in late October. "It was just learned a little while ago that one of the closest people to Hillary Clinton, with longstanding ties to her and her husband, gave more than $675,000 to the campaign of the spouse of a top FBI official, his wife, who helped oversee the investigation into Mrs. Clinton's illegal email server," he said in Tampa on October 24. The next day, he added, "The man who was in charge of the investigation of Hillary Clinton accepted essentially from Hillary Clinton $675,000 that went to his wife." Trump was referring to the fact that McCabe’s wife ran for Virginia state Senate, and she received money from Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s political operation. (By the way, McCabe was NOT leading the Clinton investigation when his wife ran for state Senate.)

Did Trump fire Comey because of the Clinton investigation? Or Russia? A lot smoke points to Russia

The explanation that Trump’s Justice Department gave is that Comey was fired for how he handled the 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. And Trump’s tweets this morning appear to back that up. “The Democrats have said some of the worst things about James Comey, including the fact that he should be fired, but now they play so sad!” he says. “Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike. When things calm down, they will be thanking me!” But consider these stories. The Wall Street Journal: “The more James Comey showed up on television discussing the FBI’s investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, the more the White House bristled, according to aides to President Donald Trump. Frustration was growing among top associates of the president that Mr. Comey, in a series of appearances before a Senate panel, wouldn’t publicly tamp down questions about possible collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race. A person with knowledge of recent conversations said they wanted Mr. Comey to ‘say those three little words: “There’s no ties.”’”

And then there's this from 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." And then there’s Trump’s letter to Comey: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation…”

Here are the Republicans who have questioned Comey’s firing

As for the Capitol Hill reaction to Trump’s firing of Comey, he’s going to make some Republicans WISH they could talk about health care. And the action has only accelerated calls for a special counsel or commission -- including from some Republicans. Here are the critical GOP comments, per NBC’s Frank Thorp:

  • John McCain: “I have long called for a special congressional committee to investigate Russia's interference in the 2016 election. The president's decision to remove the FBI Director only confirms the need and the urgency of such a committee.”
  • Jeff Flake: “I've spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey's firing. I just can't do it.”
  • Ben Sasse: "Regardless of how you think Director Comey handled the unprecedented complexities of the 2016 election cycle, the timing of this firing is very troubling.”
  • Richard Burr: “I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination."
  • Bob Corker: "While the case for removal of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey laid out by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein was thorough, his removal at this particular time will raise questions.”

Who will Trump pick to replace Comey?

His instinct would be a Rudy Giuliani or Chris Christie, but both would be incredibly controversial (then again, Trump never avoids controversy; he runs to it). But if he tries to pick someone above reproach, the names would include former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, Michael Chertoff, or Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. The point is, it has to be someone who can win Democratic support to have ANY credibility. Indeed, the John McCains or Ben Sasses probably won’t support anyone who can’t get a thumbs up from a Dianne Feinstein. But don’t forget: Whenever Trump has had a chance to delay the Russia probe, he’s found a way (see Nunes). And what if the president takes his sweet time to fill the FBI director post? It leaves the agency looking leaderless and it further undermines its credibility. Which all serves to muddy and delay the Russia probe.