Comey Ouster Threatens to Backfire on Troubled White House

Updated on
  • FBI director led probes into possible Russian ties to campaign
  • Republican Senator Flake says he ‘just can’t’ justify decision

Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey is threatening to quickly backfire on the president, who’s now facing intense scrutiny from Democrats and even some Republicans over why he dismissed the man in charge of investigating his campaign’s possible ties to Russia.

Trump’s decision on Tuesday jolted the multiple congressional inquiries into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, fueled calls for a special prosecutor and set the stage for a bruising battle to get Comey’s successor through Senate confirmation. Trump took to Twitter to defend the move -- and attack his foes.

Comey in Washington on May 3.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

“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 Wednesday morning. “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.

The White House pushed back against criticism that the move was designed to derail the Russia investigations. “When are they going to let it go?” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told Fox News on Tuesday evening, saying Comey’s dismissal wouldn’t affect the FBI’s investigation. “It’s kind of getting absurd. There’s nothing there.”

If Trump was trying to put the Russia questions behind him, firing Comey will certainly have the opposite effect, as the president now has the power to choose who will oversee the ongoing investigation of his own campaign.

The move struck a nerve in Washington because the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation isn’t just another presidential appointee. The FBI is supposed to be shielded from politics, with its director serving a 10-year term and expected to have independence to pursue investigations wherever they lead -- including the Oval Office.

Comey Firing Poses Toughest Test Yet for Senate’s Russia Probe

Some prominent Senate Republicans said the decision to fire the FBI chief -- a move that has only happened once before -- was troubling.

“I’ve spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey’s firing,” Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona wrote on Twitter. “I just can’t do it.”

Armed Services Chairman John McCain said “the president’s decision to remove the FBI Director only confirms the need and the urgency” for a “special congressional committee to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.” Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, who leads one of the Russia examinations, said Trump’s move “further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee.”

In a bit of provocative timing, the White House announced just hours after Comey’s firing that Trump would welcome Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to the Oval Office on Wednesday for a closed-door meeting.

According to the White House, the Russia investigation had nothing to do with Comey’s dismissal. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote that Comey should be fired because of his handling of the examination of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s private email server, citing the director’s decision to publicly announce his findings upon closing the probe last July. Yet the facts of that inquiry were well-known when Trump took office and asked Comey to stay on the job.

For a QuickTake Q&A on the twists in the Trump-Russia probe, click here

Trump alluded to the Russian inquiry in a four-paragraph letter Tuesday to Comey, suggesting the FBI director had somehow cleared him -- though Comey has never done so publicly.

“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” Trump wrote.

Trump’s criticism was a stark change from his praise of Comey after the FBI chief reopened the email inquiry just days before the election, a move many Democrats including Clinton say cost her the presidency. Trump continued to back Comey after his inauguration.

Tensions between the two men reemerged in March, when Comey told Congress he was, in fact, investigating possible ties between Trump associates and Russia, and he dismissed Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that former President Barack Obama had “wiretapped” his New York office.

Democrats, who had frequently criticized Comey for his handling of the Clinton inquiry, found themselves comparing Trump’s move to Richard Nixon’s firing of the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal that eventually ended Nixon’s presidency.

Watergate Comparison

“Not since Watergate have our legal systems been so threatened, and our faith in the independence and integrity of those systems so shaken,” Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. Trump “has catastrophically compromised the FBI’s ongoing investigation of his own White House’s ties to Russia,” he added.

Trump isn’t expected to see any candidates for the FBI job on Wednesday, according to a White House official. The president will get a list of possible contenders in coming days, the official said, but it’s unclear whether he’ll meet with any of them before leaving on a foreign trip at the end of next week.

It’s also unclear whether Trump can convince Comey’s potential successors that they wouldn’t also be fired if they crossed the president. 

“Given the way the president has fired Director Comey, any person who he appoints to lead the Russia investigation will be concerned that he or she will meet the same fate as Director Comey if they run afoul of the administration,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

Fierce Scrutiny

Any Trump nominee to replace Comey would face fierce scrutiny. Democrats will use the confirmation process to focus attention on Trump’s alleged ties to Russia and his business conflicts.

Several Republicans rose to Trump’s defense Tuesday night, saying that Comey’s actions last year showed he was no longer able to effectively lead the bureau.

Senator Susan Collins called the firing “likely the inevitable conclusion" of Comey’s much-criticized decision to flout Justice Department guidelines by announcing he was ending the Clinton email investigation without bringing charges.

Comey, 56, was appointed by Obama to lead the FBI in 2013. He’ll be succeeded as director, at least temporarily, by his deputy, Andrew McCabe. But McCabe might not be politically acceptable to Trump and his leadership team.

Warning Signs

McCabe came under pressure last year when he helped oversee the Clinton email investigation even though his wife had accepted donations from Democratic political organizations for a failed 2015 election bid to the Virginia state senate. The FBI said in a statement at the time that McCabe “played no role" in his wife’s campaign "and did not participate in fundraising or support of any kind."

Hours before Comey’s firing, there were subtle signs that he might be in jeopardy. At the Tuesday afternoon White House briefing, spokesman Sean Spicer dodged questions about whether Comey still had Trump’s full confidence, saying he had “not asked the president” about it.

Comey’s firing marked the end of a strained relationship with Trump. The FBI chief’s future had been put into question in January, before Trump took office, when Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced that he would investigate Comey’s handling of the Clinton email probe. That review hasn’t been completed.

But Trump asked Comey to continue leading the bureau after an in-person briefing on Jan. 6 and embraced him at a White House reception after the inauguration.

Trump qualified his support in an April interview on the Fox Business Network. He said that while he had confidence in Comey, it wasn’t too late to ask him to step down. He also suggested he was harboring a grudge from the campaign.

“Don’t forget, when Jim Comey came out, he saved Hillary Clinton. People don’t realize that,” Trump said. “Director Comey was very, very good to Hillary Clinton, that I can tell you. If he weren’t, she would be, right now, going to trial.”

Even after his departure, Washington may not be done with James Comey. On Tuesday night, a number of Democrats, including Mark Warner, the party’s top member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, began calling for him to testify now that he’s no longer burdened by administration restrictions on what he can say.

Lawmakers, he said, “need to hear directly from former Director Comey.”

— With assistance by Chris Strohm, Toluse Olorunnipa, and Jennifer Epstein

(Updates with Trump tweets starting in third paragraph.)
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