WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey on Tuesday, stunning Washington with a decision that he said was needed to allow a “new beginning” at the bureau.
The abrupt ouster came as the FBI investigates whether any of Trump’s associates colluded with efforts by Russian intelligence agencies to influence the 2016 election, and it drew immediate calls from senior Democrats for an independent prosecutor to oversee the criminal inquiry.
Republicans insisted that both the FBI and congressional investigations of Russia’s actions would continue without White House interference. Several stressed the need for Trump to appoint an independent figure to head the FBI.
“His removal at this particular time will raise questions,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said in a notable understatement.
For the last 10 months, Comey has come under sharp and widespread criticism from figures in both parties for his handling of two investigations connected to the election – the counterintelligence investigation of Russia’s role and the inquiry into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s email practices while she was secretary of state.
Despite their criticism, Democrats said that nothing Comey did last year justified Trump’s firing him now. In statements, leading Democratic lawmakers called his ouster during the ongoing Russia investigation “outrageous” and said it was “not what an innocent person would do.”
They warned the dismissal could lead to a White House effort to shut down the FBI investigation into potential collusion.
“No one should accept President Trump’s absurd justification” for the firing, declared Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the former head of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“The president has removed the sitting FBI director in the midst of one of the most critical national security investigations in the history of our country – one that implicates senior officials in the Trump campaign and administration. This is nothing less than Nixonian,” Leahy said.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said he told Trump, who called to notify him before making the firing public, “You’re making a very big mistake.”
Although the FBI director serves a fixed term, which is supposed to insulate him from political pressure, previous presidents of both parties have taken the position that as an officer of the executive branch, the director can be fired by the president.
Trump said he had acted on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a career prosecutor who is overseeing the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation because Atorney General Jeff Sessions has stepped aside from any role in it.
In a memorandum to Sessions, which was released by the White House, Rosenstein harshly criticized Comey for his actions going back to last July, when Comey held a news conference to announce that the FBI would not seek charges against Clinton in the email investigation but also denounced her conduct.
That was a serious misjudgment, Rosenstein said, adding, “The goal of a federal criminal investigation is not to announce our thoughts at a press conference.”
Comey’s actions were “a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do,” he wrote.
Rosenstein said Comey made the problems worse with his decision in late October – 11 days before the election – to disclose that the FBI had reopened its investigation of Clinton after finding State Department emails on a computer belonging to former Rep. Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of Clinton’s aide, Huma Abedin. After a week, the FBI determined that those emails added no significant new evidence to the case.
Clinton has blamed the Comey letter for contributing to her defeat, although polling evidence on that point is unclear.
Trump loudly praised Comey’s announcement at the time.
Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that the criticism he had received had been “painful.”
“I’ve gotten all kinds of rocks thrown at me and this has been really hard, but I think I’ve done the right thing at each turn,” he testified. He added that he welcomed an FBI inspector general’s review of his conduct, which was announced in January.
But Comey argued that he had no choice but to disclose the renewed investigation just before an election, and not “conceal” it.
Rosenstein sharply disagreed. Prosecutors should never disclose nonpublic information about investigations, he wrote: “Silence is not concealment.”
Given Comey’s errors and his refusal to admit that they were mistakes, “the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them,” Rosenstein wrote.
Sessions, in a letter to Trump, said he was recommending Comey’s dismissal “for the reasons expressed by the deputy attorney general” and in order for the department to “clearly reaffirm its commitment to longstanding principles” of proper conduct by investigators.
Trump, in a letter to Comey informing him of his dismissal, said he had accepted the recommendation.
He added that he “greatly appreciate(d) you informing me on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer announced the decision to reporters Tuesday evening, saying that Trump had “accepted the recommendation of the attorney general and the deputy attorney general regarding the dismissal of the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
In a statement, the White House quoted Trump as saying that “the FBI is one of our nation’s most cherished and respected institutions and today will mark a new beginning for our crown jewel of law enforcement.”
A search for a new permanent FBI director will begin immediately, the statement said.
But nominating and ultimately confirming a new FBI director in such a politically toxic environment will be an extraordinarily difficult task.
Democrats will intensely scrutinize any Trump pick in part because of the president’s and administration’s own comments about the judiciary and investigatory agencies.
Just Tuesday the White House questioned the public assertions and private actions of former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who testified Monday about concerns she had raised to Trump officials about whether national security adviser Michael Flynn had been compromised through misleading public statements about his interactions with Russian officials.
Spicer suggested Yates was acting as a pro-Clinton partisan, and said without evidence that she was “widely rumored to play a large role” in a Clinton administration.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Trump called her at 5:30 p.m. to relay his decision.
“The next FBI director must be strong and independent and will receive a fair hearing,” she said.
Obama nominated Comey in 2013 to replace Robert Mueller, who had served beyond the typical 10-year term of an FBI director in part because of the difficulty in finding a replacement amid continuing national security threats. Comey was easily confirmed by the Senate to serve as the agency’s seventh director.
In choosing Comey, a Republican, the Obama administration highlighted his credentials as a federal prosecutor and his apolitical manner.
During an earlier stint as acting attorney general under President George W. Bush, Comey had threatened to resign rather than bow to administration pressure to authorize secret surveillance of telephone calls by the National Security Agency without judicial approval.
But the campaign tested his reputation for nonpartisanship. Prominent Democrats faulted Comey for not disclosing the extent of the Trump probe during the campaign, in contrast with his very public role in discussing the Clinton investigation.
Trump at first appeared inclined to keep Comey in his position. Just two days after his inauguration, Trump singled him out during a gathering with law enforcement officials in the Blue Room, shaking his hand and patting him on the back.
“He’s become more famous than me,” the president quipped.
Speaking to reporters at his afternoon briefing, Spicer hedged on whether Comey still had the president’s confidence after the FBI confirmed he had given inaccurate testimony to a congressional panel.
“I have not asked the president since the last time we spoke about this,” Spicer said.
He returned to the briefing room hours later with news of the firing.