By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – US President Donald Trump unleashed a political storm on Tuesday by firing FBI Director James Comey, who had been leading an investigation into possible Trump 2016 presidential campaign collusion with Russia to influence in the electoral result.
The Republican president said he fired Comey, America’s top law enforcement official, for his handling of an election-year email scandal involving then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The move came as a surprise to Washington and raised suspicions among Democrats and others that the White House was trying to mitigate the FBI investigation involving Russia.
Some Democrats compared Trump’s decision to the “Saturday Night Massacre” of 1973, in which President Richard Nixon fired an independent special counsel investigating the Watergate scandal.
White House officials denied allegations that there was any political motive in the move by Trump, who took office on January 20.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said he spoke to Trump and told him he was “making a big mistake” in firing Comey, adding that the president did not “really respond” in response.
An independent investigation into Moscow’s role in the elections “is now the only way forward to restore the faith of the American people,” Schumer said.
Although many Democrats have criticized Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation, they said they were concerned about the timing of when Trump fired him.
Senator Richard Burr, Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which oversees its own investigation into Russian interference during the elections, said in a statement that he was also concerned about the timing of Comey’s termination.
“His firing, I believe, is a loss to the Bureau and the nation,” Burr said.
US intelligence agencies concluded in a January report that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered an effort to disrupt the 2016 elections, with the aim of helping Trump.
CNN reported Tuesday night that federal prosecutors had issued grand jury subpoenas to Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, seeking business records as part of the investigation into Russian election interference.
Trump’s firing of Comey came a day after former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates told a Senate panel that she had informed the White House on January 26 that Flynn was at risk of being blackmailed by Moscow. because he hadn’t been honest about his discussions with the Russian ambassador. , Sergei Kislyak. Trump fired Flynn 18 days later.
Russia has repeatedly denied any meddling in the elections and the Trump administration denies allegations of collusion with Russia.
RESTORE ‘PUBLIC TRUST’
Trump, in a letter to Comey published by the White House, said: “It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital mission of law enforcement.”
The president told Comey in the letter that he accepted Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recommendation that he could no longer provide effective leadership. Comey’s term would end in September 2023. He was appointed director by Democratic President Barack Obama in 2013.
Sessions advised the Trump campaign before being chosen by the president to head the Justice Department. Sessions had refrained from participating in the Russia investigation, after he misstated his own 2016 contacts with the Russian ambassador to Washington.
Comey’s aide, Andrew McCabe, became acting director of the FBI. The White House said the search for a new permanent director would begin immediately.
In response to critics of the move, White House officials said Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a career prosecutor who took office April 25, assessed the situation at the FBI and concluded that Comey had lost his trust.
Rosenstein sent his recommendation to Sessions, who agreed and forwarded his recommendation to Trump, who accepted it on Tuesday, they said.
The White House released a memo in which Rosenstein wrote: “I cannot defend the Director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the near-universal judgment that he was wrong. “.
Rosenstein cited comments from several former Justice Department officials who were critical of Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation, including his public statements.
But one of those he cited, Donald Ayer, a former deputy attorney general to President HW Bush, questioned the alleged reasons for the firing. Contacted by Reuters, Ayer said in an email that the administration’s explanation was “a sham.”
Comey was traveling through Los Angeles when it emerged that he had been fired.
In a bizarre twist, a White House official said the firing letter was delivered to the FBI by Keith Schiller, Trump’s armed personal bodyguard who is now the Oval Office’s director of operations at the White House.
Trump, in the letter, said: “While I am very grateful to you for informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless agree with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you cannot run the office. effectively. ”
Comey, 56, had come under fire from many quarters for her handling of an investigation involving Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was the US secretary of state under Obama. As recently as Tuesday, the FBI cleared up the comments Comey made on the matter last week.
Trump had originally criticized the FBI director for failing to press criminal charges against Clinton last July, but later praised him.
Comey had said in July that Clinton’s email case should be closed without prosecution, but then declared, 11 days before the November 8 election, that he had reopened the investigation due to the discovery of a new trove of emails related to Clinton.
Clinton and other Democrats say they believe Comey’s decision cost him the election.
The firing came as a shock to FBI personnel, nearly all of whom had confidence in Comey despite controversy surrounding his handling of the Clinton email situation, according to an FBI official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said there were concerns among officers that the firing was a political act related to the Russian investigation.
Other current and former US intelligence and law enforcement officials questioned the White House‘s explanation of Comey’s firing.
“Trump praised him for his work on the email investigation, so he’s not that,” said Austin Berglas, a former FBI supervising agent in hacking cases. “I think he realized the scope of the ongoing Russia investigation and pulled it out. For me, that’s the only logical explanation at the moment.”
Trump’s firing of Comey does not mean that the FBI investigation into Russia’s interference in the US presidential election will be interrupted or terminated; career FBI personnel may continue the investigation even as the search for a new FBI director begins, legal experts said.
Republican Rep. Justin Amash wrote on Twitter that he and his staff were reviewing the possibility of drafting legislation to create an independent commission to investigate meddling in the Russian campaign.
The legislation related to the appointment of a special prosecutor or an independent lawyer has expired. But Justice Department regulations provide for the appointment of a special counsel, who is selected by the attorney general or the acting attorney general in case of challenge, experts said.