Did Donald Trump fire FBI chief James Comey because his Russia probe was gaining too much ground?

Just hours before Mr Comey was sacked as FBI director, federal prosecutors had issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of former national security adviser Lieutenant General Michael Flynn

Click to follow
The Independent US

The firing of James Comey by Donald Trump came just as the investigations into the President’s alleged clandestine links with Russia were gaining fresh impetus, after a period when they had been stymied through White House pressure.

The inquiries by Mr Comey’s FBI  and Congress had seen a marked upturn in activity in recent weeks, indicating that the drive to uncover if Mr Trump was the “Muscovite Candidate” in last year’s election was not going to go away. This has been reinforced by reports that Mr Comey asked for further resources for his investigation in the days before he was forced out.

The senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, was among those who raised questions about the timing of Mr Comey’s dismissal. “Were these investigations getting too close to home for the President? This does not seem to be a mere coincidence,” he pointed out.

It has emerged that just hours before Mr Comey was sacked Federal prosecutors issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who had to resign as Mr Trump’s national security adviser after his connections with Moscow were exposed.

This is a highly significant development, with grand juries having wide-ranging powers to compel hostile witnesses to appear before them, demand and receive confidential documents and issue criminal indictments.

It has also emerged that  a Senate Committee has asked the Treasury’s criminal investigation division for any relevant financial information related to Mr Trump, his associates and his campaign aides. White House spokesman Sean Spicer, meanwhile, was forced to disclose that the President has hired a private Washington law firm to write to the Committee over his alleged Russian links.

Mr Comey’s demise also comes after revelations that Barack Obama had personally warned Mr Trump against hiring Lt Gen Flynn because of the security risk he posed, and Sally Yates, in her post as US Deputy Attorney General, had warned the White House that the new President’s national security adviser had lied about his meetings with the Russian ambassador in Washington, Sergey Kislyak.

Ms Yates was fired by Mr Trump soon after he came to office. It was said at the time that this was due to her refusal to enforce his ban on travellers from a number of Muslim countries, pointing out that it was unconstitutional. But her involvement in the Flynn affairs may also, it is now believed, have played a part in the decision being made. After her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism about Lt Gen Flynn on Monday, Mr Trump abused her on Twitter.

The White House had also sought to stop Ms Yates from giving evidence before the House committee looking into links between Mr Trump and associates and Russia. The hearing for her testimony was cancelled abruptly by Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the Committee.

Mr Nunes was among a number of Republican Congressmen who appeared to be successfully thwarting the Russia investigations, to the frustration of the Democrats as well as a number of Republicans.  

But he had to recuse himself from the inquiry after it was disclosed that he was taking information to the Trump team before placing it before the Committee. Mr Nunes is now the subject of an ethics investigation.

The removal of Mr Nunes gave the House investigation a boost. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat in the Committee said he was receiving cooperation from the new Republican chairman, Mike Conway. “We are making progress. Mike Conway and I have worked together in a non-partisan, very matter of fact way,” he stated.

“We are back to scheduling our witnesses… We are getting new documents from the Intelligence Community: so things are moving in a very positive direction.”

Meanwhile a separate Senate investigation into the Kremlin links has also stepped up a gear. The size of the research team was increased and last week a number of Trump campaign aides were asked to hand over notes and records of meetings with Russian officials.

Why did Donald Trump fire James Comey?

Among those who received the demands were Carter Page, who had been a foreign policy adviser to Mr Trump, and Roger Stone, a confidant and informal adviser.

Mr Page had acknowledged that he had been the target last year of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) order, obtained by the FBI, something normally issued when the law agencies can show probable cause that the subject of the surveillance was in the service of a foreign power. One of the areas being examined is his possible links with Igor Sechin, the head of Russia’s state-run oil company, Rosneft, and a close associate of Vladimir Putin.

There are also Congressional inquiries into Paul Manafort, who had to resign as Mr Trump’s campaign manager due to his links with Moscow-backed figures. Mr Manafort had formerly worked as campaign manager for Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian President now in exile in Russia.

Prosecutors in Kiev now want to question Mr Manafort about his alleged receipt of vast sums of money from Mr Yanukovych and say they have requested help from James Comey for their investigation.

It is seen as a sign of the Trump team’s nervousness about what may unfold that it appears to be trying to distance itself from Mr Manafort. At a recent briefing to journalists, the White House spokesman Sean Spicer brought up Mr Manafort’s name unprompted, and claimed, to general incredulity, that “he played a very limited role, [for a] very limited amount of time” in the presidential campaign.

Scott Horton, a lawyer specialising in anti-corruption cases with experience of the former Soviet Union and knowledge of the Republican party leadership, points out that attempts to kill off the investigations by the Trump team have, so far, failed.

He recently said: “The Republicans have decided that the game of stalling the investigations entirely, as Nunes had tried to do, was backfiring in a big way, and that they were taking a drubbing in opinion polls where there has been a steady shift to calling for an independent commission, which is the worst outcome for them. They want to have some control.”

However, he also believed that the Congressional inquiries still lacked sufficient staff to carry out a proper investigation. In particular, he felt, they needed experts in forensic accounting with an understanding of post-Soviet financial practices, and techniques used by oligarchs to mask asset transfers.

But Mr Horton saw an obvious solution: “There are a lot of FBI agents with this kind of expertise. They should not be hard to find.”

Could this, one can wonder, be the ideal job opportunity for a very recently unemployed director of the FBI?

Comments