Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey yesterday, ostensibly for incompetence. With the FBI investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, the justification is suspect. A ROAM analysis reveals how Trump’s letter firing Comey does the opposite of what Trump intended.
Imagine you’re Trump. (Hard to do, I know.) You’re about to fire the director of the agency that’s investigating you. Like any writer, you start with a ROAM analysis before writing anything important.
Readers. While the letter will ostensibly be to Comey, your real audience is the press and the public.
Objective. Convince people that the firing is about competence, not evading an investigation.
Action. Trump supporters will continue to support Trump; friendly media (like Fox News) will back the president; Republican lawmakers won’t call for a special prosecutor.
Impression. President Trump acts in the nation’s best interest.
The Trump letter undermines his own goals
Here’s the full text of the letter Trump sent to Comey.
Dear Director Comey:
I have received the attached letters from the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General of the United States recommending your dismissal as the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I have accepted their recommendation and you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.
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.
It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission.
I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.
Donald J. Trump
The second paragraph about Trump being under investigation is off-topic. It’s a ham-handed attempt to show that Trump is not guilty, but given the ROAM analysis, it does the opposite. Analyzing the actual letter:
Readers. The public, not Comey. (In fact, they read the letter to Comey over the phone, and he found out he was fired by seeing it on TV screens while he was speaking to agents in Los Angeles.)
Objective. By bringing up the FBI investigation of Trump, the letter undermines its own justification.
Action. Some Trump supporters will give up on the president; Republicans including lawmakers are asking to continue or step up the investigation.
Impression. President Trump looks like he’s protecting himself.
Trump ruined the messages from his own officials
There is no question about whether a president can fire an FBI Director — Bill Clinton fired his in 1993. But because it is an extraordinary action, it requires an ironclad justification.
In this case, while Trump went off-script, his people didn’t. Here’s what Comey’s boss, attorney general Jeff Sessions, wrote:
Dear Mr. President:
As Attorney General I am committed to a high level of discipline, integrity, and the rule of law to the Department of Justice — an institution that I deeply respect. Based on my evaluation, and for the reasons expressed by the Deputy Attorney General in the attached memorandum, I have concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI. It is essential that this Department of Justice clearly reaffirm its commitment to longstanding principles that ensure the integrity and fairness of federal investigations and prosecutions. The Director of the FBI must be someone who follows faithfully the rules and principles of the Department of Justice and who sets the right example for our law enforcement officials and others in the Department. Therefore, I must recommend that you remove Director James B. Comey, Jr. and identify an experienced and qualified individual to lead the great men and women of the FBI.
Jeff Sessions, Attorney General
This includes a few weasel words (“deeply,” clearly,”) but doesn’t stray from the topic.
In a memo, Rod J. Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General put in place by Trump, made the case to get rid of Comey. He starts like this:
Restoring Public Confidence in the FBI
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has long been regarded as our nation’s premier federal investigative agency. Over the past year, however, the FBI’s reputation and credibility have suffered substantial damage, and it has affected the entire Department of Justice. This is deeply troubling to many Department employees and veterans, legislators and citizens.
Again with the weaselly “deeply,” and “substantial.” But Rosenstein goes on to cite specific reasons:
The Director was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case [regarding Hillary Clinton’s emails] should be closed without prosecution. It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement.
Compounding the error, the Director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation.
Rosenstein goes on to cite former Justice Department and FBI officials explaining why what Comey did was wrong.
Surprisingly, this letter doesn’t include Comey’s most recent misstatement — that there were “hundreds or thousands” of Hillary Clinton’s emails on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, the husband of her aide and the subject of a separate FBI investigation.
The context destroys Trump’s credibility
There are two competing narratives here.
- Trump’s team wants you to believe that he’s getting rid of an FBI Director for one reason: incompetence.
- Alternatively, you can believe that Trump fired Comey to impede the investigation of his ties to Russia.
If Trump fired Comey for incompetence, why wait until now, instead of at the beginning of his term or just after Sessions was confirmed?
Why did they fire him for exactly the actions that Donald Trump has praised him for during the campaign — his public comments on Clinton’s emails?
Why does the New York Times report that Trump asked his people to find reasons to fire Comey a week ago? If Trump’s justification were correct, his staff would have come to him with concerns, not the reverse.
Why defensively include the comments about not being under investigation in the firing letter, if the firing is exclusively about incompetence?
Before this firing, it was clear that Trump was incompetent and possibly, although not provably, corrupt. The firing and Trump’s letter about it make things worse.
The question that crystallized our focus in the Watergate hearings was, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” Trump has now insured that the remainder of his administration, no matter how long or short it might be, will be spent answering the same question.