Updated at 9:22 p.m. ET
The president has fired FBI Director James Comey, who was overseeing an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections and possible ties to the Trump campaign and top aides.
The White House pointed to Comey’s handling of the probe into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s private email server while secretary of state as the reason for his dismissal. But Democrats were quick to call the move “Nixonian,” saying that the decision by Trump was part of an effort to impede the Justice Department’s Russia investigation which, in the view of many leading Capitol Hill Democrats, could now only be managed by a special prosecutor going forward.
“Today, President Donald J. Trump informed FBI Director James Comey that he has been terminated and removed from office. President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement.
“The FBI is one of our Nation’s most cherished and respected institutions and today will mark a new beginning for our crown jewel of law enforcement,” the president said in the statement.
Russia probe looms over surprise dismissal
The abrupt decision by the White House brings to an end a tumultuous tenure for the career prosecutor who found himself at the center of controversy about the 2016 election, taking heat from both sides.
But it also raised questions about the ongoing Russia probe, with Democrats saying the firing was an effort by the White House to derail the investigation.
“The first question the administration has to answer is, why now?” said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “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?”
“If Deputy Attorney General 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,” Schumer continued.
FBI director became a flashpoint in 2016 election
Comey first made waves in July 2016 when he announced that the FBI was not recommending any charges against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over her handling of her controversial private email server while she was secretary of state during the Obama administration.
But even though there would be no prosecution, Comey’s press conference in and of itself was damning, as he declared that Clinton and her staff had been “extremely careless” in handling classified data — fodder that Trump and Republicans would use throughout the campaign.
But Rosenstein, Trump’s deputy attorney general, said in his memorandum to Sessions that those actions were in part what motivated his dismissal:
“The Director was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution. It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement. At most, the Director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors.”
On Twitter last week, Trump claimed that Comey “was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!”
Comey again found himself at the center of a political firestorm when less than two weeks before Election Day last year he notified Congress he was reopening the investigation into Clinton’s emails. Clinton said last week she believed that controversial decision contributed to her loss.
During the campaign, Trump said that Comey’s decision to reopen the Clinton investigation “took a lot of guts.”
“It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election,” Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week in defending his decision. “But honestly, it wouldn’t change the decision.”
During that same testimony, Comey said that Clinton aide Huma Abedin had forwarded “hundreds and thousands” of Clinton’s emails, “some of which contained classified information,” to her husband, former Rep. Anthony Weiner, to print out. The discovery of those emails while Weiner was being investigated for possible lewd contact with a minor online is what triggered the reopening of the Clinton investigation just before Election Day. However, after ProPublica reported Comey’s testimony had been inaccurate and that there had been only a “small number” of emails forwarded, Comey had to clarify those comments in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee released Tuesday at nearly the same time news of his firing began to break in the media.
Comey confirmed earlier this year that the FBI was investigating possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian attempts to influence the U.S. presidential election. The president has repeatedly downplayed any investigation, dismissing it as a “total hoax.”
In his letter to Comey relieving him of his duties effective immediately, Trump alluded to the ongoing Russia investigation but also stressed that he had not personally been implicated:
“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.”
But the ongoing Russia investigation badly complicates Trump’s decision to fire Comey.
Sessions, who recommended Comey’s dismissal, had already recused himself from any investigation into Russian meddling in the election, leaving any inquiry to be led by Rosenstein. The decision by Sessions, who was a top Trump surrogate, came in March after he first testified he had no contact with Russian officials during the campaign but then later clarified that he had twice met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.
“Given that the Attorney General supposedly recused himself from the Russia investigation, he should not have played any role in removing the lead investigator from his duties,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a senior Judiciary Committee member, said in a statement. “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.”
Republicans raise concerns over firing
It isn’t just Democrats questioning the rapid turn of events. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr said in a statement that he was “troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination.”
“Director Comey has been more forthcoming with information than any FBI Director I can recall in my tenure on the congressional intelligence committees,” the North Carolina Republican said. “His dismissal, I believe, is a loss for the Bureau and the nation.”
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who has been critical of Trump in the past, tweeted that he and his staff were “reviewing legislation to establish an independent commission on Russia,” calling Trump’s comments in his letter to Comey underscoring that he himself wasn’t under investigation “bizarre.”
Comey was just four years into a 10-year term after being nominated by President Obama in 2013. His pick drew bipartisan praise and he was confirmed by the Senate overwhelmingly by a vote of 93-1. A former Republican, Comey served as the deputy attorney general for nearly two years under President George W. Bush.
Comey had repeatedly reiterated he planned to remain at the FBI, saying in March, “You’re stuck with me for about 6 1/2 years.”
Trump does have the authority to fire the FBI director, even without a reason, as Newsweek noted just last week.
But a president has taken such action only once before. In 1993 President Bill Clinton dismissed FBI Director William Sessions amid ethics concerns after Sessions refused to resign. But that was after the culmination of a long investigation that found that Sessions had abused his office.