by Peter Baker
In dramatically casting aside James B. Comey, President Trump fired the man who may have helped make him president — and the man who potentially most threatened the future of his presidency.
Not since Watergate has a president dismissed the person leading an investigation bearing on him, and Mr. Trump’s decision late Tuesday afternoon drew instant comparisons to the “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973, when President Richard M. Nixon ordered the firing of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor looking into the so-called third-rate burglary that would eventually bring Nixon down.
In his letter firing Mr. Comey, the F.B.I. director, Mr. Trump made a point of noting that Mr. Comey had three times told the president that he was not under investigation, Mr. Trump’s way of pre-emptively denying that his action was self-interested. But in fact, he had plenty at stake, given that Mr. Comey had said publicly that the bureau was investigating Russia’s meddling in last year’s presidential election and whether any associates of Mr. Trump’s campaign were coordinating with Moscow.
The decision stunned members of both parties, who saw it as a brazen act sure to inflame an already politically explosive investigation. For all his unconventional actions in his nearly four months as president, Mr. Trump still has the capacity to shock, and the notion of firing an F.B.I. director in the middle of such an investigation crossed all the normal lines.
Mr. Trump may have assumed that Democrats so loathed Mr. Comey because of his actions last year in the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server that they would support or at least acquiesce to the dismissal. But if so, he miscalculated, as Democrats rushed to condemn the move and demand that a special counsel be appointed to ensure that the Russia investigation be independent of the president.
The move exposed Mr. Trump to the suspicion that he has something to hide and could strain his relations with fellow Republicans who may be wary of defending him when they do not have all the facts. Many Republicans issued cautious statements on Tuesday, but a few expressed misgivings about Mr. Comey’s dismissal and called for a special congressional investigation or independent commission to take over from the House and Senate Intelligence Committees now looking into the Russia episode.
The appointment of a successor to Mr. Comey could touch off a furious fight since anyone Mr. Trump would choose would automatically come under suspicion. A confirmation fight could easily distract Mr. Trump’s White House at a time when it wants the Senate to focus on passing legislation to repeal former President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Mr. Trump did little to help his case by arguing that he was dismissing Mr. Comey over his handling of the investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s email, given that he vowed as a candidate to throw her in prison if he won. Few found it plausible that the president was truly bothered by Mr. Comey’s decision to publicly announce days before the election that he was reopening the case, a move Mrs. Clinton and other Democrats have said tilted the election toward Mr. Trump.
“It’s beyond credulity to think that Donald Trump fired Jim Comey because of the way he handled Hillary Clinton’s emails,” John D. Podesta, who was Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, said in an interview. “Now more than ever, it’s time for an independent investigation.”
Mr. Podesta noted that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recommended the dismissal. “The attorney general who said he recused himself on all the Russia matters recommended the firing of the F.B.I. director in charge of investigating the Russia matters,” he said.
Defenders said Mr. Trump’s action would not circumvent the F.B.I. investigation, which would go forward with career agents. “This doesn’t stop anything,” Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general and ally of Mr. Trump’s, said on CNN. “The notion that this is going to stop the investigations going on is ludicrous.”
While Mr. Trump said he acted at the urging of Mr. Sessions, he had left little doubt about his personal feelings toward Mr. Comey or the Russia investigation in recent days. “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?” he wrote on Twitter on Monday.
The Watergate comparison was unavoidable. When Mr. Cox, the special prosecutor, subpoenaed Nixon for copies of White House tapes, the president ordered that he be fired. Both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, refused and resigned instead. The third-ranking Justice Department official, Solicitor General Robert H. Bork, complied with Mr. Nixon’s order and fired Mr. Cox.
Democrats saw parallels. “This is Nixonian,” Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said in a statement.
“Not since Watergate have our legal systems been so threatened and our faith in the independence and integrity of those systems so shaken,” added Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut.
Even a longstanding ally of Mr. Trump’s, Roger J. Stone Jr., drew a connection as he defended the president. “Somewhere Dick Nixon is smiling,” Mr. Stone, who worked for Nixon and is among the Trump associates facing F.B.I. scrutiny, said in an interview. “Comey’s credibility was shot. The irony is that Trump watched him talk about bumbling the Hillary investigation, not the Russia investigation — and decided it was time to get rid of him.”
At least one Twitter user made the argument that Mr. Trump had gone where even Nixon had not. The Nixon presidential library posted a picture of Nixon on the telephone with the message: “FUN FACT: President Nixon never fired the Director of the FBI #FBIDirector #notNixonian.”
Ever since Watergate, presidents have been reluctant to take on F.B.I. directors, no matter how frustrated they were. The only exception was President Bill Clinton, who fired William S. Sessions in 1993 after ethical issues were raised against Mr. Sessions, and was accused of acting politically. The successor he appointed, Louis J. Freeh, became even more of a headache for Mr. Clinton as he helped an independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr, investigate the president. But Mr. Clinton never risked the backlash that would have come had he dismissed Mr. Freeh.
Robert S. Mueller III threatened to resign as F.B.I. director during President George W. Bush’s administration if a secret surveillance program he considered illegal were reauthorized, and Mr. Bush backed down rather than risk a scandal. Joining Mr. Mueller in that threat, as it happened, was a deputy attorney general named James Comey. Mr. Bush ultimately revised the legal justification in a way that passed muster with Mr. Mueller and Mr. Comey and allowed the surveillance to go forward.
Timothy Naftali, a former director of the Nixon library, said Mr. Trump’s action was not a direct parallel to the Saturday Night Massacre because Mr. Comey was not appointed specifically to investigate the 2016 campaign.
“With or without Mr. Comey, the F.B.I. will continue to investigate the 2016 campaign as it relates to Russian intervention,” Mr. Naftali said. “This is another kind of mistake. Unless Attorney General Sessions can prove malfeasance or gross negligence by Comey, the timing of this action further deepens suspicions that President Trump is covering up something.” nytimes.com