President Donald Trump’s cabinet appointments, Rex Tillerson to State, Jeff Sessions to Justice, Rick Perry to Interior, have all encountered criticism and tough questioning in Senate confirmation hearings, though none have yet failed to be confirmed.
But one of the most debated decisions the the new chief magistrate has had to make was actually not an appointment at all, but rather a decision not to dismiss FBI Director James Comey.
Though FBI directors are appointed to 10-year terms that are intended to carry across presidential administrations, and Comey is only in the fourth year of his term, they can be dismissed by a president — and there is a historical precedent for such a dismissal. In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton sacked FBI Director William Sessions, who was appointed by President Reagan.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon was eager to fire FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover — who had been at the post since 1935 — but feared that Hoover would release damaging information about him and decided against it. Presidents Truman and Kennedy, too, had considered getting rid of Hoover, but feared the political fallout of such a step.
In the case of Comey, President Trump would have likely earned points with his political foes if he would have let the FBI director go.
Hillary Clinton privately blamed Comey for her election defeat because of a letter he sent Congress 11 days before the election with the shattering news that the FBI had discovered additional emails in the Clinton probe that required review. Just before Election Day, Comey announced that the emails were immaterial, but by then the polls had registered significant, apparently irreversible, damage. Democrats have been furious at the FBI chief and have sought his ouster ever since.
Earlier in the campaign, it was then-candidate Donald Trump was who was scathing in his criticism of the FBI over an earlier decision not to recommend charges against Clinton, despite evidence of the use of an unsecure email server while she was secretary of state. He called the bureau’s decision a “horrible mistake.”
With the Justice Department inspector general currently reviewing allegations of misconduct involving Comey and the way he handled the probe of Clinton’s emails, firing Comey would have earned Trump points among the FBI chief’s foes on both sides of the political divide.
Trump’s decision not to do that — as tempting as it might have been — is commendable. By allowing Comey to continue at his post, he has demonstrated confidence in his integrity and reaffirmed the apolitical status of the directorship of the nation’s chief investigatory agency.
Also on Tuesday, the same day as the Comey news, the nominee for head of the Department of Health and Human Services, Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), told the Senate Finance Committee at a confirmation hearing that the new administration intends to keep that part of Obamacare which entitles people with existing illnesses to obtain health insurance.
Price’s testimony confirms what some analysts have suggested, that the Republican repeal of Obamacare will not be wholesale or indiscriminate. Much as the Republicans fought against and detest the Affordable Care Act, they are well aware that certain components of it are humane and popular, and deserve to be retained. The pre-existing coverage provision is just that. And the millions of Americans, including many Republicans, who are benefiting from it will be sore and angry if the new administration tries to do away with it.
During the hearing, Price was badgered somewhat regarding the stage at which the administration’s plans for revamping Obacare now stand.
“President Trump said that he’s working with you on a replacement plan for the ACA, which is nearly finished and will be revealed after your confirmation. Is that true?” asked Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio.
“It’s true that he said that, yes,” Price replied, to laughter in the hearing room.
Brown followed up by asking if that meant the president had “lied” when he said they had a plan that was close to finished.
“I’ve had conversations with the president about health care,” Price replied, but ignoring Brown’s insinuation about a lie.
The Democrats were frustrated at Price’s refusal to give details about the Obamacare rollback. His insistence that the goal is making health care affordable and “accessible for every single American” and to provide choices, was the kind of bland reassurance that the senators were in no mood for.
However, Price cannot really be faulted for hiding behind such bromides at this stage of the game. The ambitious project of redoing the vast entity known as Obamacare cannot be accomplished in a few days. It has already become so enmeshed in the health system and the economy in general that to simply wrench it out without careful thought would be damaging to everybody.
Even the Trump administration’s worst enemies wouldn’t want to see that.