A hidden message in memo justifying Comey’s firing

May 10, 2017
FBI Director James Comey. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Anyone seeking further confirmation that Donald Trump’s presidency is primarily a media story need look no further than the surprise firing of FBI Director James Comey.

According to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Comey was essentially let go for talking to the press. That’s almost surely not the real reason he was fired, but in this case, the media is both a smokescreen and a clue. Comey’s ouster falls perfectly in line with the administration’s broader positions on media control, leaks, and leakers. It also offers more evidence, in case anyone needed it, of Trump’s overweening desire to control the news cycle.

First, let’s look closely at the administration’s stated rationale as to why Comey had to go. In his memo explaining the decision, dated the same day as the firing, Rosenstein wrote that the ex-FBI director erred by talking publicly in July about the decision to close the inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State. In doing so, Comey “usurp[ed] the Attorney General’s authority….It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement,” Rosenstein wrote.

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Whatever you think of Comey’s choices regarding the Clinton emails, it’s hard not to read Rosenstein’s memo as a screed against transparency, specifically when it comes to sharing information with the press. Rosenstein notes that Comey “ignored another longstanding principle: We do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation….The Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial. It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”

The subtext of Rosenstein’s memo is that the FBI director—and perhaps others in the Trump administration—should sit down and shut up. It’s not an encouraging message, yet it lines up with other recent moves against free speech.

Comey made matters worse in late October, 11 days before the election, when he sent a letter to Congress discussing his decision to re-open the inquiry. While Comey said his choice was between speaking about the decision and “conceal[ing]” it, Rosenstein argues that “[c]onceal is a loaded term that misstates the issue. When federal agents and prosecutors quietly open an investigation, we are not concealing anything; we are simply following the longstanding policy that we refrain from publicizing non-public information. In that context, silence is not concealment.”

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Never mind that, back in October, then-Senator Jeff Sessions told Fox Business Network that Comey “had an absolute duty, in my opinion, 11 days or not, to come forward with the new information that he has and let the American people know that, too.” The subtext of Rosenstein’s memo is that the FBI director—and perhaps others in the Trump administration—should sit down and shut up. It’s not an encouraging message, yet it lines up with other recent moves against free speech.

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Comey’s firing comes just weeks after now Attorney General Sessions said that going after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was “a priority.” “We are going to step up our effort and already are stepping up our efforts on all leaks,” Sessions told reporters. “This is a matter that’s gone beyond anything I’m aware of. We have professionals that have been in the security business of the United States for many years that are shocked by the number of leaks and some of them are quite serious.”

Indeed, The Washington Post reports that the White House and the FBI have been at loggerheads for months because some in the administration “were pressuring Comey to more aggressively pursue leak investigations over disclosures that embarrassed the White House and raised questions about ties with Russia.” While the FBI was looking into those leaks, Comey’s agency “resisted calls to prioritize leak investigations over the Russia matter,” the Post reports, “or probe matters that did not involve leaks of classified or otherwise sensitive information.”

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Lest you think the administration is uniformly opposed to leaks, it should be noted that Trump was for WikiLeaks before he was against it. The problem isn’t leaks. It’s who’s talking to the press, and by extension, who controls the media narrative. Comey couldn’t stay on as Trump’s FBI director, not just because he was leading a potentially perilous investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia, but because he’s known for his independence and comfort with the press.

“The real issue is Comey had become the focus of everything,” Texas Congressman Blake Farenthold fumed on NPR’s Morning Edition. “It wasn’t about the FBI. His face was on TV way too much. How many former FBI directors beyond J. Edgar Hoover can you name? They work quietly and methodically in the background doing their investigations. They’re not on the front pages of the newspaper and they’re not involved in elections.”

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If there’s anyone who dislikes being upstaged, it’s Donald Trump. “He’s become more famous than me!” the president joked as he greeted Comey with a handshake and hug at a gathering in January.

Was Trump OK with that? Maybe it was tolerable when the men agreed, as they did about Clinton’s emails, but not when their views diverged, as they have more recently on a number of issues, most prominently the Russia investigation.

“If the Trump administration wants to criminalize dissent, there is a sense in which they have the tools already at their disposal,” Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, told a recent gathering. “Some of the most significant threats to the freedom of speech and the press are likely to be more subtle, less visible, indirect….Things will happen incrementally….I think you have to see that first incremental step, not just for what it is in itself, but for what it could become. And in order to do that you have to be in the right mindset. You have to understand what this administration has proposed to do over time, what its larger goals are, what its larger philosophy is. And you have to understand these seemingly incremental policy changes in that broader context.”

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Vanessa M. Gezari is the managing editor of CJR and author of The Tender Soldier, which came out in paperback in August 2014.