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Editorial: Comey firing must not sidetrack investigation of Russian meddling

Intended or not, President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey is likely to choke off the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s cyberattack on November’s election.

For reasons that can begin and end at patriotism, that investigation needs to continue, but it cannot be led by anyone under the president’s thumb. An independent investigator needs to be appointed.

Trump couched his surprise action Tuesday as a response to Comey’s inept handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, but the email investigation concluded more than six months ago. While many critics and observers – including this page – said at the time that Comey should quit or be fired, Trump’s sudden conversion from a Comey supporter to a foe creates, at a minimum, the appearance that he is trying to quash the investigation into Russian attempts to influence the presidential election.

As the New York Times reported Wednesday, Trump struck at Comey only days after the FBI director asked for more resources in the bureau’s investigation of Russia’s meddling in the election. Since July, the FBI has been investigating contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Comey’s request for money and personnel was made to Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who then wrote the Justice Department’s memo used to justify the firing.

In March, Trump fired former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara only weeks after asking him to stay on. Bharara had been investigating financial moves by Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Price. Bharara sounded the alarm on Trump’s firing of Comey. “EVERYONE who cares about independence & rule of law in America should be ‘troubled by the timing and reasoning’ of Comey firing. Period,” he wrote on Twitter.

He’s not alone.

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said he was “troubled” by the firing. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was “disappointed.” Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., found it “very troubling,” and Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, tweeted that he would introduce a bill to create an independent commission to investigate Russia’s role in the election.

The only way out of this mess is through an independent investigation.

No one should take that step lightly. Independent counsels are a different kind of beast. A prosecutor such as Bharara must always weigh his actions against the other demands of his position. That forces a kind of balance.

But that’s not the case with special prosecutors. They tend to focus, sometimes obsessively, on producing results. Think of Kenneth Starr and his investigations of former President Bill Clinton.

Yet, there is no alternative. Americans need to know, as much as possible, what Russia did in its broadly acknowledged effort to influence the November election and what must be done to prevent it from happening again. Until that happens, we remain vulnerable to an even more devastating cyberattack on our democracy.

Neither the House nor the Senate has shown any interest in performing its critical oversight role. An independent investigation, well funded and out of political reach, is the only answer.

It’s also the patriotic response. This is about our country and the integrity of our elections, the bedrock of any democracy. That’s the trail that needs to be followed, wherever it leads, regardless of party or interest. Elected officials who seek to sweep this matter under the rug – including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – are failing the most fundamental test that has come Congress’ way in decades. They are choosing party over country, partisanship over patriotism.

It’s hard to believe, under the circumstances, that the Justice Department or Congress will approve a special investigation, but voters can play a crucial role in altering that outcome. They need to leave the administration and their federal representatives no doubt about where they stand. There are enough Americans of both parties who care about their country to raise the temperature on unwilling politicians.

The other question hanging in the air is who will replace Comey. The concern has to be that Trump will nominate someone he trusts not to trouble him and that the milquetoast Senate, which must approve a successor, will go along.

Voters can play a role there, too.

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