The ‘who, what, why’ of Trump’s swift firing of Comey
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s swift firing of FBI Director James Comey amid the bureau’s investigation into allegations his campaign had ties to Russia raised a lot of questions and reaction, with Democrats calling for an independent prosecutor and at least one Republican welcoming the news as a chance for a fresh start. Still others were mystified by the decision to fire a director once lauded by both parties for his independence and integrity.
WHAT DID THE PRESIDENT SAY?
Trump told Comey in a letter that he was following the recommendations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, who criticized Comey’s controversial handling of an investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server.
“It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission,” Trump wrote.
Clinton has blamed that investigation in part for the election result that put Trump in the White House.
Trump in his letter also said Comey repeatedly told him that he was not part of the probe into Russia contacts, something that has not been publicly stated before and which would be extremely unusual for an FBI director to say.
“While I greatly appreciate you informing me on, 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.
When asked last week during a Senate hearing whether the president was part of the probe, Comey declined to answer.
WHAT WAS THE DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL’S JUSTIFICATION?
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote a scathing three-page memo titled, “Restoring Public Confidence in the FBI,” that slammed almost every aspect of Comey’s handling of the Clinton probe. He said the director broke with longstanding tradition and protocol by holding a news conference in July where he announced Clinton would not be charged but denounced her sloppy handling of classified information. Comey should not have made his own conclusions about the “nation’s most sensitive criminal investigation” without the Justice Department’s express approval. But instead he “laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial,” Rosenstein wrote. He called it “a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”
Then the closing days of last year’s election, Comey announced the FBI was reopening the probe based on newly discovered emails, saying “concealing” that information would be worse. Rosenstein called that a “loaded term” because federal law enforcement officials have a longstanding practice of not speaking publicly.
“In that context, silence is not concealment,” he wrote. “The way the Director handled the conclusion of the email investigation was wrong. As a result, the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them.”
The memo is also significant because Rosenstein is overseeing the Justice Department’s investigation into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, after Sessions recused himself.
WHAT DID DEMOCRATS SAY?
Democrats decried the firing, comparing it to President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” decision to fire the independent special prosecutor overseeing the Watergate investigation, prompting the resignations of the Justice Department’s top two officials. They expressed deep skepticism about the stated reasons of the firing, publicly raising the prospect of a White House effort to stymie a pressing investigation.
“This is Nixonian,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., declared on Twitter. “Outrageous,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, calling for Comey to immediately be summoned to testify to Congress about the status of the Trump-Russia investigation. Rep. Adam Schiff of California said the White House was “brazenly interfering” in the probe.
WHAT DID REPUBLICANS SAY?
Some lawmakers welcomed news of the dismissal.
“Given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well,” said Republican Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, chairman of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee investigating the Russian campaign interference.
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said Comey served the country well, but “many, including myself, have questioned his actions more than once over the past year. I believe new leadership at the FBI will restore confidence in the organization and among the people who do the hard work to carry out its mission.”
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Congress must form a special committee to investigate Russia’s interference in the election.
WHAT DID FBI AGENTS SAY?
The head of a professional association of FBI agents said it appreciated Comey’s leadership and support.
“He understood the centrality of the Agent to the Bureau’s mission, recognizing that Agents put their lives on the line every day,” FBI Agents Association President Thomas O’Connor said in a statement. He said Comey worked to ensure the FBI’s investigations were constitutional and that agents “performed their mission with integrity and professionalism.”
And the association wants a say in who will be the next director.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Trump will now appoint Comey’s successor. The White House said the search for a replacement was beginning immediately. Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe, has been named interim director.