White House Defends Firing Comey as Trump Seeks FBI Chief

  • President considered firing Comey on taking office, aide says
  • Current FBI officials being interviewed for temporary post

The Trump administration began its search for a replacement for ousted FBI Director James Comey while fending off questions about the president’s abrupt decision to fire the nation’s top law enforcement officer.

President Donald Trump planned to meet Wednesday with acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, a deputy who took over the agency after Comey’s firing, a White House spokeswoman said, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein spent most of the day interviewing other contenders to hold the job on an interim basis.

A Justice Department official said candidates being interviewed include Adam Lee, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Richmond office; Michael Anderson, special agent in charge of the Chicago office; Paul Abbate, the FBI’s executive assistant director in charge of the bureau’s criminal and cyber division; and William Evanina, the national counterintelligence executive at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. While McCabe automatically took charge Tuesday, he may face obstacles to remaining in the post based on past criticism from Trump.

An acting director would not be named Wednesday night, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss personnel issues.

Finding a permanent replacement who can win Senate confirmation and earn the trust of rank-and-file FBI agents will be a tall order for the White House after Trump’s move seemed to cross a long-standing tradition against political interference with the bureau. Several FBI agents replaced their photos on Facebook with Comey’s and have written that they were outraged by his removal.

Read what happens to Trump-Russia probe after Comey -- a QuickTake Q&A

The president will get a list of possible contenders to fill the job on a permanent basis in coming days, a White House official said.

Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he called Trump Tuesday night and urged him to nominate “someone who is absolutely beyond reproach and that both sides of the aisle can have complete faith in and the American people will.”

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that Trump had been contemplating dismissing Comey since taking office, even though he expressed confidence in the FBI director on several occasions and had asked him to stay on the job.

Lost Confidence

Trump didn’t act to remove him immediately because “the president wanted to give director Comey a chance,” Sanders said. But he lost confidence in Comey, as did officials in the Justice Department and within the FBI, she said.

Trump, answering questions after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the White House on Wednesday, said he dismissed the FBI chief because “he wasn’t doing a good job, very simple.”

Read more about Russia’s Lavrov visiting Trump after Comey’s firing

In a tweet later in the day, Trump called Democrats “phony hypocrites” for criticizing Comey’s dismissal after complaining for months about the FBI’s handling of its investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Comey will get a chance to tell his side of the story to lawmakers if he accepts an invitation to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee at a closed meeting next week. Senator Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the panel, asked Comey to appear.

On Wednesday, that committee subpoenaed Michael Flynn, Trump’s fired national security adviser, in a sign the bipartisan probe into whether any of Trump’s associates colluded with the Russians to interfere in last year’s presidential election will continue full speed ahead.

Trump will be nominating Comey’s successor while the agency is deep into an investigation of Russian meddling in last year’s presidential campaign, which includes whether anyone close to Trump colluded with the Russians. Democrats condemned Comey’s dismissal, calling it an effort to cut short the probe and demanding the appointment of a special prosecutor to carry it forward.

Work Under Way

Comey’s removal probably won’t significantly disrupt the investigation into Russia’s interference in the election and possible collusion by Trump associates, at least in the short term, a senior U.S. law enforcement official said in an interview.

Career Justice Department prosecutors and FBI agents have assignments and other investigative work that are already authorized and under way regardless of who the FBI director is at this point, said the official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a current inquiry.

According to the White House, it wasn’t the Russia investigation that led to Comey’s dismissal. Rosenstein said in a memo that Comey was fired because of his handling of the probe last year 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.

Comey’s testimony before a Senate panel last week -- with its implication that he might again disregard the Justice Department’s chain of command as he did in announcing in July that he was closing the Clinton investigation -- was the turning point that sealed his removal, according to a second Justice Department official. His testimony took Sessions and Rosenstein by surprise, according to the official, who declined to comment on whether an effort to remove Comey was under way before his testimony.

But statements by the president and some of his aides on Tuesday night suggested the Russia investigation had their attention. In his letter to Comey, Trump wrote, “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.” Vice President Mike Pence made the same point Wednesday morning speaking to reporters at the Capitol.

‘Getting Absurd’

Sanders dismissed the Russia probe and said Trump’s opponents need to move on.

“When are they gonna let that go?” she said on Fox News Tuesday night. “It’s been going on for nearly a year. Frankly, it’s kinda getting absurd.”

The New York Times and Washington Post reported that Comey last week requested more Justice Department resources to pursue the investigation. Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores denied that Comey sought more money and resources from Rosenstein.
 
However, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, a member of the Intelligence Committee, and other Democrats said they were aware of Comey’s request.

“I didn’t hear him say it, but that’s my understanding that’s the case,” she said in Washington. But Feinstein added that she didn’t think that was a factor in Comey’s firing.

The temporary FBI director would lead the bureau until a new director is nominated by Trump and confirmed by the Senate.  An acting director, whose appointment would be valid for 210 days, can come from three categories -- the top assistant to the FBI director; any person currently serving in government office who’s been confirmed by the Senate; or someone who’s a senior employee in the agency where the vacancy occurs, which in this case is the Justice Department.

Democratic Connection

While McCabe, a career FBI official, already was interviewed for the interim job, according to one of the officials, the possibility that he’ll be passed over could intensify the uproar over Trump’s dismissal of Comey.

McCabe came under scrutiny last year for helping to oversee the investigation of Clinton’s email practices because McCabe’s 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."

At a rally in Florida in October, Trump told a booing crowd, “So the man that was investigating her from the FBI, his wife runs for office and they give her more than $675,000 to run. And it just came out.”

Confirmation Battle

Now, Trump must recruit a new FBI director who can win Senate confirmation after some Republicans joined Democrats in criticizing the president’s firing of Comey.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who heads a Judiciary subcommittee investigating Russian meddling in last year’s presidential campaign, said he would “prefer that we pick somebody that can get some Democratic support if there’s any reasonable views left on the Democratic side about Trump.” He said the president should pick a professional who “would be seen by most Americans as a good leader for the FBI .”

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said that “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.”

Comey, 56, was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013 for what would normally be a 10-year term. His 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, 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.

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.

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.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE