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Comey's Gone: Will the Russian Hacking Probe Stall?

Trump's Firing of FBI Director Complicates Already Complicated Investigation
Comey's Gone: Will the Russian Hacking Probe Stall?
FBI Director James Comey appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 3.

President Donald J. Trump has fired FBI Director James Comey, a divisive figure who led the law enforcement agency through an unprecedented presidential campaign tainted by Russian hacking and Hillary Clinton's classified email investigation.

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The White House says Comey was dismissed based on recommendations from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. In his letter to Comey, Trump writes: "We need to find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission."

Andrew G. McCabe, Comey's deputy, will run the agency while the administration seeks a new director. The FBI remains deep in an investigation into whether members of Trump's election campaign colluded with Russian officials into disrupting the campaign through public dumps of Democratic Party emails and documents (see Comey Confirms Probe of Possible Trump-Russia Links).

In January, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia waged a hacking and disinformation campaign that attempted to influence the outcome of the presidential election. But it's unclear if the operation tipped the election in Trump's favor.

Trump has fiercely dismissed suggestions of impropriety by either himself or his campaign. His letter to Comey sought to reinforce that position.

"While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau," Trump writes.

Comey's Firing 'Nixonian'

Comey's dismissal has caused broad concerns from both Democratic and some Republican lawmakers over the president's influence over an agency that is investigating his closest advisers, some of who have stepped down due to their contacts with Russian officials.

The firing is nothing less than "Nixonian," says Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, in a statement.

"The president has removed the sitting FBI director in the midst of one of the most critical national security investigations in the history of our country - one that implicates senior officials in the Trump campaign and administration," Leahy says. "This is nothing less than Nixonian.

In October 1973, President Richard Nixon ordered the dismissal of Archibald Cox, an independent special prosecutor in charge of investigating the burglary of the Democratic National Committee's headquarters, which was located at the Watergate Hotel. Cox issued a subpoena for Nixon, requesting recordings of White House conversations, which the president refused. The dismissal of Cox was key to Nixon's eventual downfall, and he resigned in August 1974.

Trump has the legal authority to remove Comey, who led the FBI during a set of extraordinary circumstances, says Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. But in a statement, McCain argues that the firing demands that a special congressional committee be created to investigate Russia's interference with the election.

"The president's decision to remove the FBI director only confirms the need and the urgency of such a committee," McCain says.

Investigations Continue

In addition to the FBI's ongoing investigation, the House and Senate are holding hearings into election tampering. The House investigation initially leaned toward whether the Obama administration illegally spied on Trump's campaign associates - an unsubstantiated angle embraced by Trump. The House has now resumed a broader investigation.

Just a day before he fired Comey, Trump took to Twitter to dismiss the investigations: "The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?"

In terms of the administration's decision to dump Comey, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein's memorandum contains related details. In particular, it cites irregularities in how the director handled the Clinton probe. That investigation, which didn't result in criminal charges, revolved around whether she knowingly mishandled classified information while using a personal email address and email server when serving as U.S. secretary of state.

Just 11 days before the Nov. 8 election, Comey informed Congress that the FBI had reopened its investigation into the Clinton emails. That followed the finding of emails on a computer belonging to disgraced politician Anthony Weiner, the husband of Huma Abedin, one of Clinton's closest aids.

The bombshell disclosure gave Trump, who was widely predicted to lose the election, an unexpected boost. Trump repeatedly brought up the emails on the campaign trail in an attempt to discredit Clinton. As hacking allegations circulated in July 2016, Trump boldly encouraged Russia to find 30,000 Clinton emails that were supposedly missing.

Although the FBI cleared Clinton of wrongdoing earlier that same month - in July 2016 - it seeded further doubt among an already jaded electorate. The agency later concluded many of the emails were duplicates of what it had already analyzed.

"The way the director handled the conclusion of the email investigation was wrong," Rosenstein writes in a letter. "As a result, 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."

'Mildly Nauseous'

Comey has defended his decision to depart from traditional FBI investigatory practices.

Before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 3, Comey said he was faced with the choice to either "conceal" the reopened investigation or speak about it. In unusually emotive language, he described his gut feelings on the disclosure's effects (see 5 Cyber-Tied Takeaways from Comey's Senate Testimony).

"Look, this is terrible," Comey testified. "It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election. But honestly, it wouldn't change the decision."

By contrast, Comey only revealed the ongoing investigation into Trump's associates and Russian officials in March. The FBI launched that investigation in July 2016, well before the presidential election.

The final straw for Comey, however, may have come during other points of his Senate testimony. He incorrectly claimed Abedin forwarded hundreds and thousands of emails from Clinton to her husband, including ones containing classified information. The error in his testimony was first pointed out by independent, nonprofit news organization ProPublica.

As a result, the FBI sent a letter to Congress on May 9 correcting several of Comey's misstatements. It said most of the 49,000 emails found on Weiner's laptop ended up there due to automated backups. Only a "small number" were manually forwarded by Abedin to Weiner, and of those, two email chains contained classified information, according to the letter.

Alleged Conflict of Interest

Rosenstein's memo - citing the reasons for Comey's dismissal - pointed to multiple alleged lapses by the FBI director, including his notifying Congress that the bureau had reopened its investigation into Clinton's handling of classified emails. The incident diverged from the FBI's policy of neither confirming nor discussing ongoing probes, and Rosenstein claims that it was not the only time that Comey had failed to follow traditional agency practices.

For example, Comey held a press conference on July 5, 2016, in which he said the agency concluded that although Clinton was "extremely careless" in her handling of classified information, the agency did not believe her actions merited a criminal case.

The former FBI director did not inform then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch of his conclusion before holding a press conference, in another departure from established protocol, Rosenstein writes. Comey later said he believed Lynch had a conflict of interest.

"At most, the director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors," Rosenstein writes. "There is a well-established process for other officials to step in when a conflict requires the recusal of the attorney general."

About the Author

Jeremy Kirk

Jeremy Kirk

Executive Editor, Security and Technology, ISMG

Kirk was executive editor for security and technology for Information Security Media Group. Reporting from Sydney, Australia, he created "The Ransomware Files" podcast, which tells the harrowing stories of IT pros who have fought back against ransomware.

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