Annotated letter: The Trump administration’s case for firing FBI Director James Comey


Why did President Trump fire FBI Director James B. Comey?

In a three-page letter sent by Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein to his boss, Jeff Sessions, Rosenstein cites Comey’s public statements about the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Among Rosenstein’s conclusions:

  • Comey refuses “to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken” to go public in July with his reasons for recommending no criminal charges again Clinton. During that news conference, Comey said Clinton and her aides were “extremely careless” in handling classified information.
  • Comey “was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority” to announce that the case would be closed. “The Director is never empowered to supplant federal prosecutors and assume command of the Justice Department,” Rosenstein wrote.
  • Comey “ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation.” Although such information is sometimes disclosed, “we never release it gratuitously.”
  • The conclusion that Comey acted inappropriately in the Clinton case is shared by “former Attorneys General and Deputy Attorneys General from different eras and both political parties.”

Rosenstein’s letter concludes: “The FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them. Having refused to admit his errors, the Director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions.”

Here’s a look at some key sections of the letter annotated by Edmund Sanders, an editor in our Washington bureau:

I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken.

— Rosenstein

Neither do a lot of people. Comey had come under fire from all sides for his handling of the Clinton email investigation, though many supporters insist his motivations were always to maintain the credibility and independence of the bureau. Yet he said earlier this week that even with hindsight, he would have taken the same action.

The Director was wrong to usurp the Attorney General's authority on July 5, 2016.

— Rosenstein

Not exactly usurp. Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch had already announced that she was going to accept the recommendations of Comey and career prosecutors. So she had tossed the ball in his court. Also he did not have the power to close the case. He simply announced he would not recommend prosecution. Lynch still had the final authority.

It is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.

— Rosenstein

Yes, but Republicans and Democrats certainly disagree on what they think Comey did wrong. Republicans, including Trump, think that Comey should have charged Clinton with criminal wrongdoing and that he bowed to political pressure by declining to do so. Democrats say his extraordinary news conference in which he accused Clinton of being “extremely careless” with classified material, and the surprise reopening of the inquiry shortly before the election, helped lead to Clinton’s defeat.

It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement.

— Rosenstein

That’s true. It almost never happens. But Comey defended the decision by insisting that the circumstances were extraordinary.

The FBI Director is never empowered to supplant federal prosecutors

— Rosenstein

Again, Lynch in effect did empower him, though she did not approve of the news conference.

The Director announced his own conclusions ... without the authorization of duly appointed Justice Department leaders.

— Rosenstein

Comey supporters say he made the announcement independently, without first informing Justice Department officials, in order to maintain a sense of independence and credibility. Lynch, who had come under fire for a brief meeting with former President Cliinton, was under a cloud of suspicion.

It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.

— Rosenstein

True, many former prosecutors said exactly that. But it’s worth noting that Trump and many other Republicans, though initially disappointed that Comey had decided against prosecution, used Comey’s comments over and over against Clinton during the campaign.

We should reject the departure and return to the traditions.

— Rosenstein

Many prosecutors would agree. But the question is: Why take this step now? If Comey’s actions were so inexcusable, why wasn’t he fired by Trump immediately?

Having refused to admit his errors, the Director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions.

— Rosenstein

This seems to be Rosenstein’s attempt to explain the timing of the decision. Though Comey had previously stood behind his actions, he gave a more detailed defense of them during this week’s Senate hearing. That seems to have provided the administration with a hook to justify his firing, saying in effect that the director had failed to acknowledge and learn from his mistakes.

'Conceal' is a loaded term that misstates the issue.

— Rosenstein

Many agreed that Comey was creating a bit of a false choice here. He could have waited until investigators had more time to review the new emails, which turned out to be unimportant or duplicates.