Trump Fires FBI Director Comey Amid Russia Meddling Inquiry

  • Democrats accuse president of working to undermine probe
  • But White House cites Comey’s handling of Clinton email probe

President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey amid the agency’s investigation of Russian interference in last year’s election, saying the bureau needed new leadership to restore “public trust and confidence.”

Trump’s decision Tuesday means that he will get to nominate Comey’s successor while the agency is deep into the Russia inquiry, including whether any of Trump’s associates colluded with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election. Democrats condemned Comey’s dismissal, calling it an effort to cut short the Russia probe and demanding the appointment of a special prosecutor to carry it forward.

On "Charlie Rose," a conversation about Trump’s firing of Comey.

Source: Bloomberg

According to the White House, though, it wasn’t the Russia investigation that led to Comey’s dismissal. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Comey was fired because of his handling of the probe into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s private email server -- even though the facts of that inquiry were well-known at the time Trump took office and asked Comey to stay on the job.

Comey had announced in July that the Clinton case would be closed without prosecution, a move that prompted a furious reaction from Republicans including Trump. Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions both recommended Comey’s dismissal, the White House said in a statement.

A memo from Rosenstein made no direct mention of the Russia probe, though Trump alluded to it in a letter to Comey: “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.”

Read more about twists and turns in Trump-Russia probe -- a QuickTake Q&A

While Republicans who control Congress were slower to react than Democrats, one of them, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina, said he was “troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination.” He said it “further confuses an already difficult investigation by the committee.”

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona praised Comey and said in a statement that “the president’s decision to remove the FBI Director only confirms the need and urgency” for a “special congressional committee to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.”

U.S. intelligence agencies have found that Russia hacked into Democratic emails and released them during last year’s campaign in an effort to hurt Clinton and, ultimately, to help Trump win.

‘Not Since Watergate’

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

Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No.2 Democrat, said Comey’s firing during “an active FBI investigation of the president” raises “grave constitutional issues.”

Scoffing at criticism of Comey’s firing by lawmakers who had criticized him in the past, including Senator Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, Trump said in a Twitter posting late Tuesday, “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer stated recently, ‘I do not have confidence in him (James Comey) any longer.’ Then acts so indignant.”

Asked if Comey’s dismissal will impede the Russia investigation, Sarah Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, said on Fox News, “I don’t think it affects it at all, in any capacity whatsoever. You’ve still got the same people that would be carrying it out” in the Justice Department and in Congress. But she also said of those concerned about the probe, “When are they going to let it go? It’s kind of getting absurd. There’s nothing there.”

In his memo, Rosenstein faulted Comey for publicly announcing his decision to close the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. The director “was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution,” Rosenstein said. He added that “it is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement.”

Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation and the roiling debate over Russian interference in the presidential campaign left him with few political allies in Washington.

He was vilified by Republicans last summer when he initially closed the investigation into Clinton’s email use, saying that she and her aides were “extremely careless” in their handling of classified information but that no prosecutor would be able to bring charges.

Russia Ties

Democrats faulted Comey for reopening the Clinton email probe just before Election Day while failing to state in public that the agency was investigating possible Trump campaign links to Russian officials. Trump has said there were no such connections.

Comey confirmed in March that the FBI is investigating whether any of Trump’s associates colluded with the Russian government to influence the 2016 campaign for president. He also publicly contradicted Trump’s assertion that the Obama administration “wiretapped” Trump Tower last year.

With Comey’s departure, the FBI chief will be succeeded, at least temporarily, by his deputy, Andrew McCabe. But McCabe might not be politically acceptable to Trump and his leadership team.

McCabe came under scrutiny last year when he helped oversee the Clinton 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."

Comey is only the second FBI chief to have been fired. William Sessions was dismissed by President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno in 1993 over financial abuses.

Trump’s startling move came less than a week after the FBI chief defended his decision to reveal that the agency was restarting its probe into Clinton’s email use just days before last year’s election. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee May 3 that the decision was difficult and that it “makes me mildly nauseous to think we might have had some impact on the election.”

Yet, he added, he’d do it all again.

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