On the 9th May, the US President Donald Trump sacked James Comey, the Head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Given our recent experience in Malta, where we have had no less than five Police Commissioners in the space of just four years, this development might not sound so sensational but Comey was only the second FBI director ever to be dismissed.
What makes this development particularly distressing is that the director had been leading an investigation that could implicate the President himself. That investigation is examining alleged Russian interference in last year’s US election including the potential involvement of members of Trump’s campaign team. The removal of the FBI director has fueled accusations of a cover-up, talk of an institutional crisis and comparisons with the Watergate scandal that ultimately led to the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974.
Comey had been appointed FBI director in 2013, with the support of both the Democratic and Republican parties. He became the subject of controversy in the last days of the 2016 presidential campaign when he had made public the fact that the FBI was reopening its investigation into the emails of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The latter has since attributed her loss in the election, in part, to Comey’s action.
Paradoxically, it is this same incident which is being cited by the Trump administration as one of the reasons for Comey’s removal. In the official dismissal letter, it is stated that the President was acting on the advice of the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General who concurred that Comey was “not able to effectively lead the Bureau”. It is claimed that this negative assessment by the Justice Department was based on what it concluded was Comey’s inappropriate tendency to seek public exposure.
In his usual casual way of speaking, a few days after the official announcement, Trump stated that he had already decided that Comey had to go, even before the recommendation from the Justice Department. In the words of Trump, he considered Comey to be a “grandstander” and “showboat”.
Comey was not personally informed about the President’s decision but he learned of his dismissal from the media, while he was addressing FBI staff in their Los Angeles office. The rushed nature of the dismissal and the lack of basic courtesy has fueled further the suspicions of those who seek an ulterior motive in Trump’s actions.
In particular, it has been claimed that Comey had been intent on accelerating the inquiry into the alleged Russian interference and that he had even made a request for additional resources to pursue the investigation. The Trump administration has denied this accusation but some statements made subsequently by the President himself have rekindled the controversy.
The New York Times has come out with details of a private dinner between Trump and Comey, just a couple of weeks after Trump’s inauguration. According to this newspaper, at some stage during their conversation, Trump had asked Comey if he, i.e. the President, could count on the loyalty of the FBI Director. It is claimed that Comey’s reply was: “President, I can guarantee to you my honesty in the service of our country”.
This is what has been reported in the New York Times and the US media is rife with speculation as to whether a recording exists of this particular dinner conversation. For the moment, therefore, one must consider it only as hearsay. However, it should still be seen as a critical admonition.
Honesty in the service of your country, of the democratic system we adhere to, means being loyal, first and foremost, to your legal duties and responsibilities and not to anyone else. Not even to those who were responsible for your appointment.