Trump Firing of FBI Director a Threat to U.S. Rule of Law

Posted May 17, 2017

MP3 Interview with Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, conducted by Scott Harris

comey

Almost daily, the Trump administration provokes a new scandal, makes official statements which later turn out to be false or incites government chaos. The latest episode began on May 15, when the Washington Post reported that President Trump revealed highly classified information during a White House meeting with Russia's U.S. ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Moscow's foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. According to current and former U.S. officials, Trump's disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State, an assertion that the White House denies.

This serious allegation comes just one week after Trump was widely criticized for his firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was leading an investigation into charges of collusion between Trump's presidential campaign and Russia's effort to influence the outcome of last year's presidential election. While White House officials stated the reasons for Comey's termination were related to his handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's misuse of a private email server, the president himself admitted in an interview with NBC's Lester Holt that his decision was driven by "this Russia thing," seen by critics as an attempt to obstruct justice.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society, who assesses the prospects for a credible investigation into the charges of Russia-Trump election collusion after the Comey firing, and the larger threat posed by Trump to the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution.

[Producer's note: This interview was conducted prior to reports that fired FBI Director James Comey had created a paper trail documenting how Donald Trump had asked him to end the FBI investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Rush transcript follows.]

CAROLINE FREDRICKSON: Apparently, Jim Comey had dinner with Donald Trump in January in the White House, and according to him, he was asked to give his loyalty to Donald Trump, and he said, "I'll give you my honesty, but loyalty is something I give to the Constitution" – which is appropriate for a law enforcement officer and anybody who works for the U.S. government, including the president. You take an oath to uphold the Constitution. So then we get to this week, where apparently Donald Trump is really angry about stories continuing about Russia, about the investigation that the FBI was leading and decided that he was going to fire Jim Comey. His staff announced a whole slew of different reasons, including from the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, that said – and this is what was most ludicrous – Jim Comey was fired because he inappropriately handled Hillary Clinton's email investigation and caused harm to Hillary Clinton. So that doesn't pass the laugh test because none of the Trump people had a lot of compassion to spare for Hillary Clinton on whether the investigation was fair or not. I don't think that had anything to do with it.

Then Trump was on the news with Lester Holt and said, "I fired Jim Comey because of this Russian investigation. There's nothing there." And so there's sort of the big story, and then subsequently, news stories came out that Jim Comey had told a different version – "alternative facts" maybe, about what happened during that dinner. And then Trump tweeted, which is a dangerous tool for him, I think, basically that he had tapes and if the tapes contradicted Comey he'd be in trouble. Basically, threatening Jim Comey with releasing some tape and that of course, stirred up all sorts of things, where members of Congress had been saying, "Well, if there are tapes, then you need to turn them over."

So, this is a whole set of different issues that are raised clearly, that raise questions about the president's understanding of the role of the FBI, of the Justice Department as having an independent role to investigate crimes of his role as the president in intimidating perhaps, intimidating a witness; perhaps trying to change somebody's story; perhaps concealing evidence. I mean, there are so many possible causative actions that have been raised now. But I think for all us in the world, the legal world, whether you're Republican, a Democratic, an independent, it's so dismaying to see a president behaving in this way and to think that the FBI director would be swearing an oath of fealty to him - the FBI director needs to follow the law and follow it where it leads and not be ready to put down an investigation because the president would like it to.

So, for the moment, which is unique certainly in my lifetime and for most of us, trying to think through what's going to happen – our government seems, the basic system seems to be threatened. The rule of law is threatened. Where's the oversight? Where's the investigation going to be? Can Congress actually sort of shed its partisanship and take on this important job? I certainly hope so. There are other avenues people have suggested. A special counsel. Did the Russians in fact influence our election? There's just so many questions that we really need an independent investigator with no agenda, no allegiance to either the president or the Congress, any allegiance that is above his or her allegiance and duty to the Constitution.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Caroline, the fact that Republicans have almost total control of the federal government at this point, the question arises – how do citizens put pressure on Washington, to more toward a special counsel or an independent commission to credibly investigate the Russia-Trump campaign connections and allegations of collusion? What's the role of a citizen right now in this moment in history? And I'll just parenthetically mention that there's a lot of comparisons being made to what occurred during Watergate. But there were checks and balances in place, as the Congress was under the control of the Democrats – the opposition party – and there was a bit of conflict and checks and balances. Here, we have a completely different situation.

CAROLINE FREDRICKSON: It's a really good question and it's one of the reasons why I think many people are concerned. But look, there's no better than now for people to raise their voices. And it's actually having an impact already. You've already started to hear some Republicans raise concerns. I mean, it's unfortunate that there haven't been more of them. But they're responding to pressure. They're responding to pressure from people contacting their offices. They're responding to pressure from people going to town hall meetings. They are responding to pressure from their local papers and their local radio stations. Radio stations like this one that broadcast news and opinion have a really profound impact on what members of Congress do. Democrats need to work as hard as they can make sure that their concerns are raised and Republicans need to take the concerns of their voters and their constituents seriously. And it's all in the hands of the constituents.

And I'd say, we're a nonpartisan organization, but I can tell you without being partisan, that there's an election coming up in 2018. It's a time when members of Congress are very much paying attention and so I'd say, seize the opportunity. Everyone who's listening, seize the opportunity. Raise your voice. We are approaching a constitutional crisis and we need Congress to pay attention.

For more information on the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, visit ACSLAW.org

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