With FBI in Turmoil, Senate's Russia Probe Could Wither

  • Intelligence panel chief says inquiry was already ‘difficult’
  • Democrats want Comey to tell Congress status of FBI inquiry

Trump's Comey Firing Becomes a Question of Timing

The most prominent congressional investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election -- and possible ties to President Donald Trump’s campaign -- faces its toughest test yet after Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican, and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, a Democrat, have sought to present a bipartisan front in the high-pressure probe, and both have said Comey’s FBI was cooperating by providing information to the panel. Now they must start a new relationship with acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, and later with a new director nominated by Trump and confirmed by the Senate. 

Both senators also must contend with what’s likely to be an even more poisoned atmosphere in the Capitol with Democrats seeing “Nixonian” signs of a coverup in Comey’s dismissal by Trump on Tuesday. The president has repeatedly rejected the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia intervened in the election to help him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination,” Burr of North Carolina said in a statement. “I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the committee.”

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Comey Appearance

The Senate intelligence panel has a fairly small staff compared with the vast reach of the Trump administration, and it relies on the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the rest of the intelligence community to gather information.

One immediate question is whether Comey will be called before Congress, either in public or behind closed doors, to discuss what he knows about the FBI’s investigation. A number of Democrats, including Warner of Virginia, say he should be summoned to appear.

Warner slammed the firing amid the Russia probe as “deeply troubling.”

“The administration insists there’s no ‘there there,’ yet President Trump has so far fired the acting attorney general, nearly every U.S. attorney, and now the director of the FBI,” Warner said in a statement. “In addition, this president’s choice for attorney general has been forced to recuse himself, and the national security adviser has resigned, as a result of undisclosed contacts with Russian officials.”

Special Counsel

Warner and many other Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, insisted that a special prosecutor must be appointed.

“The only way this administration can begin to demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law, which has so far been sorely lacking, is to cooperate fully with the ongoing congressional investigations and to support the appointment of an independent special counsel,” Warner said.

Warner had recently cited progress in getting more raw intelligence from federal agencies, including from the National Security Agency. But earlier Tuesday, he confirmed he was holding up an administration nominee until the intelligence panel receives more information it requested from the Treasury Department.

Asked before Comey’s firing Tuesday if he was prepared to issue subpoenas to get information sought by the committee, Burr said he was prepared to do what it takes to get information to complete the investigation. He said he had no reason to believe the administration wouldn’t fully cooperate.

Mixed Reviews

Burr later went out of his way to praise Comey’s help.

“Director Comey has been more forthcoming with information than any FBI director I can recall in my tenure on the congressional intelligence committees,” Burr said. “His dismissal, I believe, is a loss for the bureau and the nation.”

But Senator Susan Collins, another member of the committee and a moderate Republican, called the firing “likely the inevitable conclusion” of Comey’s decision to bypass protocols and publicly announce his reasons for not recommending charges against Clinton while criticizing her actions in using a private email server while secretary of state.

“Any suggestion that today’s announcement is somehow an effort to stop the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s attempt to influence the election last fall is misplaced,” said Collins of Maine in a statement. “The president did not fire the entire FBI; he fired the director. I have every confidence that the FBI will continue to pursue its investigation” and the Senate panel will “follow the evidence wherever it leads.”

Democrats’ Outrage

Senator Ron Wyden, a Democratic member of the Intelligence committee and one of Comey’s fiercest critics, called his firing amid the Russia investigation “outrageous.”

“Director Comey should be immediately called to testify in an open hearing about the status of the investigation into Russia and Trump associates at the time he was fired,” Wyden said. “The president would do well to remember that in America, the truth always comes out.”

The firing was also criticized by Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own investigation of Russian interference in the election.

“The same president who has called the investigation into the Russian hacking of our democracy and the potential complicity of his campaign a ‘fake,’ cannot pretend to have made such a decision uninfluenced by his concerns over Comey’s continued involvement in the investigation,” Schiff said.

Trump’s Response

Trump defended his move on Twitter on Wednesday -- and attacked his foes.

“The Democrats have said some of the worst things about James Comey, including the fact that he should be fired, but now they play so sad!” Trump tweeted. “James Comey will be replaced by someone who will do a far better job, bringing back the spirit and prestige of the FBI.”

“Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike. When things calm down, they will be thanking me!” Trump said in another post.

Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia said that he had been critical of Comey during the presidential election, during which he was Clinton’s running mate, but that he never called for Comey to be fired.

“I was critical of director Comey and I am critical of Director Comey but there’s a reason you give an FBI director a 10-year term, a 10-year tenure,” Kaine told MSNBC Wednesday. “Whether Congress likes what a director does or whether the president likes or doesn’t like it, you give somebody a 10-year term so that they can act without fear of being let go.”

Deputy AG

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, called on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “to redeem himself” by appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Russian interference in the U.S. election.

“What he has to do now is say, ‘I’m going to appoint a special prosecutor, she or he will conduct this investigation independently,’” he told MSNBC Wednesday. “‘I will insulate and protect them from any political interference, they’re going to use prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York and in the National Security division who have already apparently issued some subpoenas.’”

Blumenthal added on CNN that if the deputy attorney general fails to appoint a special counselor, he will introduce legislation to establish an independent one.

‘Messy’ Democracy

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who served in President George W. Bush’s cabinet, said in a CNN interview Wednesday that she has confidence that “this investigation is going to go on” because there are multiple centers of political power in the U.S., including Congress, the press and the judiciary.

But, she added, “We’re certainly seeing that democracy is a bit messy."

— With assistance by Elizabeth Titus, and Toluse Olorunnipa

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