Updated at 11:00 p.m. ET
For months, Democrats in Congress have criticized and questioned FBI Director James Comey about his handling of last year’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
Still, they’ve met President Trump’s surprising Tuesday evening decision to fire Comey with near-universal outrage.
The White House and the Justice Department cited Comey’s ineffective leadership, but the general gist of Democratic reaction: Trump’s decision should be viewed not in light of Comey’s past missteps but instead in the context of the FBI’s ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election and the Trump transition team’s possible ties to Russia.
“The first question the administration has to answer is, why now?” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer at a hastily arranged Capitol press conference. “If the administration had objections to the way Director Comey handled the Clinton investigation, they had those objections the minute the president got into office. But they didn’t fire him then. Why did it happen today?”
Late on Tuesday, Trump replied on Twitter, noting that Schumer himself had questioned Comey’s fitness for the job in comments just prior to the election.
Pointing to the ongoing House and Senate Intelligence committees’ Russia investigations, as well as the FBI’s probe, Schumer asked, “Were these investigations getting too close to home for the president?”
In near-unanimity, Democrats are calling for a special prosecutor to take charge of the FBI’s investigation, which Comey made public earlier this year when testifying in front of the House Intelligence Committee.
“If Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein does not appoint an independent special prosecutor, every American will rightly suspect that the decision to fire Director Comey was part of a cover-up,” said Schumer.
(Rosenstein is in charge of the Department of Justice’s Russia probe, since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation.)
“This is nothing less than Nixonian,” said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a longtime senior Judiciary Committee member, in a statement. “The president’s action, and the way it has been handled, is shocking. No one should accept President Trump’s absurd justification that he is now concerned that FBI Director Comey treated Secretary Clinton unfairly.
“Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein now has no choice but to appoint a Special Counsel. His integrity, and the integrity of the entire Justice Department, are at stake,” said Leahy. “There simply is no avoiding the compelling fact that this cascading situation demands the prompt appointment of an independent Special Counsel to pick up the pieces of these investigations.”
One key Republican is voicing concerns as well. North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement, “I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director 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 the Committee.
“Director Comey has been more forthcoming with information than any FBI Director I can recall in my tenure on the congressional intelligence committees,” Burr added.
Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, who chairs the Judiciary Committee’s Oversight Subcommittee, also said in a statement that “the timing of this firing is very troubling” and that “the loss of an honorable public servant is a loss for the nation.”
But other high-profile Republicans are backing Trump.
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, says Comey’s actions “have prompted concern from across the political spectrum and from career law enforcement experts.”
“The handling of the Clinton email investigation is a clear example of how Comey’s decisions have called into question the trust and political independence of the FBI,” Grassley said in a statement. “In my efforts to get answers, the FBI, under Comey’s leadership, has been slow or failed to provide information that Comey himself pledged to provide.”
Earlier Tuesday, Comey sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee correcting testimony he gave last week, in which he misstated key details about the emails discovered on former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner’s personal computer, which prompted Comey to send his October letter.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who blasted Comey during that hearing, was notably much more muted than her fellow Democrats Tuesday night. “President Trump called me at 5:30 p.m. and indicated he would be removing Director Comey, saying the FBI needed a change,” Feinstein said in a statement. “The next FBI director must be strong and independent and will receive a fair hearing in the Judiciary Committee.”