Politics & Government

Firing of FBI director James Comey throws Russia probe into chaos

President Donald Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey Tuesday, throwing into chaos the politically fraught investigation into whether Russia had colluded with Trump’s campaign during the presidential campaign.

Members of both parties immediately criticized Trump’s puzzling timing, making it appear the firing had something to do with the Russia investigation.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also investigating Russia, said in a statement he is “troubled by the timing and reasoning” of Comey’s termination.

“I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by our committee.”

Democrats immediately renewed their calls for the appointment of an independent investigator in the Russia investigation.

“Any attempt to stop or undermine this FBI investigation would raise grave constitutional issues,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. said. “We await clarification by the White House as soon as possible as to whether this investigation will continue and whether it will have a credible leader so that we know it will have a just outcome.”

“This is Nixonian,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. “Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein must immediately appoint a special counsel to continue the Trump/Russia investigation. This investigation must be independent and thorough in order to uphold our nation’s system of justice.”

A source familiar with the FBI-led, multi-agency inquiry into Russia’s election meddling said that, despite concerns that Trump was trying to stifle the investigation, “no one is going to be able to shut this down.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, the source suggested that the White House may have reacted to Comey’s “multiple testimonies because he’s been calling it the way he sees it. He’s been very blunt.”

Hours after Comey was fired, CNN reported that prosecutors in Alexandria, Va., have issued subpoenas for business records from business associates of Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Last week, Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee that FBI agents investigating possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia were coordinating with attorneys from the Justice Department’s national security division and the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia, which is based in Alexandria, outside Washington.

Comey was scheduled to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday. It was unclear whether that appearance would take place.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters at the White House that Comey was fired after Trump received letters from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein recommending the dismissal.

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

Spicer declined to answer additional questions, but said the firing was effective immediately. The FBI is being run by its deputy, Andrew McCabe, as the administration launches a search for a new leader.

Trump had asked Comey to stay on as FBI director even though he was overseeing the Russia investigation into collusion and the hacking and public release of top Democrats’ private emails.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Trump called her at 5:30 p.m. to inform her that he was firing Comey because the FBI needed a change. She did not praise Comey, but in a statement merely said: “The next FBI director must be strong and independent and will receive a fair hearing in the Judiciary Committee,” she said in a statement.

Comey had a long career as a federal prosecutor, rising to deputy attorney general during the administration of President George W. Bush. Former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, appointed Comey to a 10-year term in 2013, but Trump had the prerogative of removing him from the job.

Comey, though never an FBI special agent himself, appeared to be well regarded by many in the bureau. “Most of our members have a good deal of respect for him,” said Nancy Savage, executive director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI. 

“Given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C. “I encourage the president to select the most qualified professional available who will serve our nation’s interests.”

Comey’s firing occurred as federal investigators closed in on several former Trump campaign aides who had contacts with Russia at a time when U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded the Kremlin had launched a cyber offensive aimed at helping Trump win the White House. 

Flynn, who was fired as Trump’s national security adviser in February, publicly sought immunity for testimony to congressional intelligence committees about the matter.

Flynn was fired for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about phone conversations he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. But it was disclosed at a Senate hearing on Monday that Trump knew he had lied about those calls for 18 days and only was dismissed when the Washington Post disclosed it publicly.

“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,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “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.”

One of the Trump campaign associates believed to be under FBI surveillance last summer welcomed news of Comey’s firing.

“It is encouraging that justice is now being restored in America,” Carter Page, briefly a foreign affairs adviser to Trump, told McClatchy.

Comey’s FBI obtained a warrant from a secret intelligence court last summer to spy on Page, who frequently traveled to Moscow on business, the Washington Post reported on April 11. 

“It’s a nice little trick to be able to fire the guy heading the investigation, but that shouldn’t protect him,” said Sarah Rumpf, a GOP consultant and commentator. “Congress must appoint a bipartisan select committee and get the answers the American people deserve.”

“While it is concerning how Comey handled the Clinton email scandal, it is all the more concerning that the president has fired the head of the agency where he is the target of an active investigation,” said Rick Tyler, a former communications director on Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.

Rosenstein was charged with overseeing the Russia investigation after Sessions recused himself because of disclosures that he had met with Russia’s ambassador, while acting as a Trump campaign adviser.

Just two weeks after the Senate confirmed his nomination, Rosenstein signed a scathing memo Tuesday that assailed Comey’s unorthodox decision last July to publicly announce he would not recommend criminal charges against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Comey took the action just days after it was disclosed that Attorney General Loretta Lynch had met on the tarmac of an Arizona airport, with Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Rosenstein accused Comey of usurping the attorney general’s authority on July 5, 2016 when he announced his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution. He blasted Comey for holding a press conference to “release derogatory information” about the subject of a declined criminal investigation. He accused Comey giving conclusive findings to the news media instead of presenting the bureau’s findings to federal prosecutors.

“It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do,” Rosenstein said.

Rosenstein appeared to pick comments of several former attorney generals, including Eric Holder, who served under Obama ,and Alberto Gonzales, who served under President George W. Bush, to back his arguments.

“Almost everyone agrees that the director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives,” Rosenstein wrote.

Sessions, in a letter to Trump, said he also “concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI.”

“It is essential that this Department of Justice clearly reaffirm its commitment to longstanding principles that ensure the integrity and fairness of federal investigations and prosecutions,” Sessions said. “The director of the FBI must be someone who follows faithfully the rules and principles of the Department of Justice and who sets the right example for our law enforcement officials and others in the department.”

Trump fired Comey despite praising him after he briefly reopened the investigation of Clinton just 11 days before last November’s election when a new cache of Clinton emails surfaced on the laptop computer of former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, whose wife, Huma Abedin, was a top Clinton State Department aide. He said then that “it took a lot of guts” for Comey to reopen the inquiry so close to the investigation.

Democrats have long called for an independent counselor or special prosecutor to look into the Russia inquiry.

Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, seen as one of the future leaders of the party and a potential challenger to Trump, called for a special prosecutor.

“I’ve said it before and will again -- we must have a special prosecutor to oversee the FBI’s Russia investigation,” she tweeted. “This cannot wait.”

Clinton’s former campaign spokesman Brian Fallon dismissed as nonsense the Trump administration’s claim that Trump lost confidence in Comey over his handling of the Democrat’s email investigation.

Most Republicans were largely supportive but Justin Amash, R-Mich., a leader of the House Freedom Caucus, said via Twitter that he and his staff were reviewing legislation to establish an “independent commission” on Russia.

He singled out as “bizarre” the second paragraph of Trump’s letter to Comey in which Trump thanks Comey for telling him on “three separate occasions” that he was not under investigation, but that he agreed with DOJ that he’s not able to lead the bureau.

Rob Stutzman, a California-based GOP consultant, predicted an independent inquiry. “Difficult to imagine how an independent investigation won’t now be necessary,” he said. “We’re in uncharted territory that will make a lot of Republicans uncomfortable.”

But some conservatives rallied to Trump’s defense. Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton picked up the White House talking points, saying the decision to fire Comey would restore the public’s trust in the FBI.

“Mr. Comey did not seem to understand some of the laws he was asked to investigate and unfortunately politicized his sensitive positon (sic) as the FBI director. President Trump took the right step in cleaning house at the FBI.”

Earlier Tuesday, the FBI wrote the Senate Judiciary Committee and said Comey recently overstated to Congress the number of emails Abedin forwarded to Weiner while working at the State Department. The FBI said just two of those messages contained classified information.

A search for a new permanent FBI Director will begin immediately.

Alex Roarty, Lesley Clark, Sean Cockerham, Mike Doyle, Kevin G. Hall and Franco Ordonez contributed.