I was working in Washington when the "Saturday Night Massacre" shocked and appalled America in 1973, creating a volcanic reaction against President Nixon.
President Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey seems less volatile and less shocking than Nixon's firing of Archibald Cox, but the similarities cannot be missed. Firing an FBI director is within a president's prerogatives, but firing an FBI director, or anyone else who is directing an investigation of the president's actions, makes the firing suspicious and shocking.
The rationale for firing Comey was odd and somewhat contradictory. He was fired, it was said, for his poor performance in the investigation of Hillary Clinton's email server. This is the investigation that candidate Trump glowingly praised during the presidential campaign. The firing also comes many months after Comey's alleged missteps. And it comes in the midst of an ongoing investigation by the FBI into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential campaign with targeted leaks, planted false "news," and other conniving.
Jeffrey Toobin, the Supreme Court journalist and author, compared the Comey firing to Third World dictatorships, where investigations of the ruler or ruling family inevitably led to the firing of investigators. "What kind of country is this?" Toobin asked on CNN.
Comey made some mistakes as FBI director. His press conference to announce that no charges would be brought against Hillary Clinton over her email practices, followed weeks later by an announcement of the reopening of the investigation (and subsequent closing without new findings), led to harsh criticism from Democrats.
If you stretch credulity and assume Trump had legitimate reasons to fire Comey, the timing is still troubling. The Russia-Trump probe continues, at least for now, and it should gain greater urgency. Trump's unctuous and
misleading compliment to Comey in the letter firing him attempts to portray Trump as innocent but just raises suspicions more.
Trump's readiness to fire the FBI director should lead to a special prosecutor, one outside of the Jeff Sessions Justice Department and the White House, one with independence and authority to subpoena and bring criminal charges. Congressional investigations into Russian influence in the 2016 campaign should gain importance and greater bipartisanship. Trump's bold timing and vague rationale surely raise suspicions.
This national crisis has not risen to the level of Watergate (where are Sam Ervin, Judge Sirica and John Dean?), but it does show that an independent investigation is warranted.