How could Comey’s firing affect foreign relations?
Americans might have been shocked when President Donald Trump suddenly fired FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday, but the reaction from some foreign officials was decidedly less so.
During a photo opportunity with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington, D.C., this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov jokingly said in Russian, “Was he fired? You’re kidding. You’re kidding.”
Watch Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s reaction in this 11-second video clip.
Comey’s bureau is investigating whether Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections and possibly colluded with members of the Trump campaign. President Trump said he fired Comey to restore public confidence in the FBI.
In an interview Thursday with NBC News’ Lester Holt, President Trump said he supports a full investigation into Russian interference in the election.
“As far as I’m concerned, I want that thing to be absolutely done properly,” said Mr. Trump. He said he thought his action might lengthen the investigation, “but I have to do the right thing for the American people. He’s the wrong man for that position.”
In terms of worldwide impacts, Phillip Lohaus, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said even though the FBI’s primary focus is on domestic affairs, Comey’s ouster could have ripple effects on America’s foreign policy.
The president is free to fire Comey and craft whatever policymaking environment he likes, said Lohaus. But “the timing of the decision, and the inability of the administration to convincingly articulate its rationale, will inevitably send a message to foreign policy appointees that dissenting voices are not welcome.” Lohaus said presidents frequently face difficult decisions and must allow alternative viewpoints.
“In firing Comey, Trump has shown that personal loyalty — a test Comey failed — is more important to him than allowing a federal agency to execute its responsibilities — in this case, the investigation of foreign intelligence activities on U.S. soil. Some of Trump’s advisers will take note,” Lohaus said. “It’s easy to see them dismissing an inconvenient intelligence assessment or indulging inaccurate viewpoints simply because they conform to the president’s whims and opinions. In order to gain an upper hand, it’s also easy to see them questioning the loyalty of dissenters. America’s ability to craft effective, fact-based foreign policy will be damaged as a result.”
Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, said the removal of Comey strengthens the claim that the Trump administration doesn’t adhere to norms and institutions, and international relations is much more about norms and voluntary institutions than about laws, he said.
President Trump will have a hard time abiding by U.N., World Trade Organization, or other decisions that he doesn’t like, said Kupchan. “If he walks from institutions, or tries to fire the head, he’d be setting many new and worrisome precedents.”
Halfway across the globe, the news of Comey’s dismissal elicited a tweet from U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Dana Shell Smith about the troubles she has explaining Washington’s actions.
Increasingly difficult to wake up overseas to news from home, knowing I will spend today explaining our democracy and institutions.
— Dana Shell Smith (@AmbDana) May 10, 2017
Her message was retweeted thousands of times and generated comments such as “Yup, America not exactly the best role model right now” and “Half the country is throwing a temper tantrum because they lost an election. It’s embarrassing.”
Comey’s departure took place just as the FBI investigation into Russia was gaining steam, said Kupchan. “Comey had asked for additional resources, and controversy over (former national security adviser) Michael Flynn’s behavior was deepening. Comey’s ouster was an act against an official who Americans believe was and should have been empowered to implement laws fairly.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, however, described Comey as an impediment to congressional investigations. “In my efforts to get answers, the FBI, under Comey’s leadership, has been slow or failed to provide information that Comey himself pledged to provide,” Grassley said in a statement. “The effectiveness of the FBI depends upon the public trust and confidence. Unfortunately, this has clearly been lost.”
In terms of relations with Russia, Kupchan said the Comey firing would have a chilling effect. “The president truly seems to want to improve relations with Russia, and for many justifiable reasons. But the Comey firing makes any cooperation with Russia even more toxic for Congress and the U.S. public. Regardless of what the facts around Comey’s ouster turn out to be, a president who many believe can’t tolerate an investigation won’t be able to lead a reset.”
— CBS Evening News (@CBSEveningNews) May 10, 2017
When asked for his opinion, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Comey’s dismissal would have “no effect” on relations with the U.S. “Your question looks very funny for me. Don’t be angry with me. We have nothing to do with that,” he told a CBS News correspondent through a translator before heading to the ice at a hockey game in Sochi.