As much as FBI Director James B. Comey drew controversy for his role shaping the 2016 presidential election, his firing Tuesday promises to be even more historic.
In an extraordinary use of his authority, President Donald Trump on Tuesday fired Comey, the man heading the federal investigation into the alleged connections between the president’s campaign and Russian operatives during the presidential election.
The White House’s stated reason for the dismissal was that Comey overstepped his authority in July when he publicly announced his conclusions in a probe of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s email conduct when she was secretary of State.
As a candidate, Trump criticized that July announcement, but then praised Comey for stating there was new information in the investigation 10 days before the November election. Clinton and other Democrats have said Comey’s late October surprise contributed to her election loss.
The reaction on Capitol Hill was swift, with Democrats renewing calls for a special prosecutor on the Russia probe and members on both sides of the aisle expressing concern with how the firing was handled.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer told reporters that when Trump called him to inform him of the decision to fire Comey, he didn’t hold back.
The New York Democrat said he told Trump, “Mr. President, with all due respect, you are making a big mistake.”
Schumer said the time has come for newly confirmed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint a special prosecutor.
Those comments were largely echoed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., although McCain said a congressional panel was more appropriate.
“While the President has the legal authority to remove the Director of the FBI, I am disappointed in the President’s decision to remove James Comey from office. James Comey is a man of honor and integrity, and he has led the FBI well in extraordinary circumstances. I have long called for a special congressional committee to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
The president’s decision to remove the FBI Director only confirms the need and the urgency of such a committee,” McCain said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a statement focusing on the Senate’s role in confirming a new director.
“Once the Senate receives a nomination, we look forward to a full, fair, and timely confirmation process to fill the director position. This is a critical role that is especially important as America faces serious threats at home and abroad,” McConnell said in a statement.
Members of McConnell’s caucus, however, expressed concern about the extraordinary turn of events.
Sen. Richard M. Burr, the North Carolina Republican who leads the Intelligence Committee, which is spearheading an investigation into Russia’s influence on the election, sent out a statement saying he was “troubled” by the news.
“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. In my interactions with the Director and with the Bureau under his leadership, he and the FBI have always been straightforward with our Committee. Director Comey has been more forthcoming with information than any FBI Director I can recall in my tenure on the congressional intelligence committees. His dismissal, I believe, is a loss for the Bureau and the nation,” Burr stated.
The firing is effective immediately and is only the second time an FBI director has been removed before the scheduled end of his tenure.
Comey, a former federal prosecutor and Justice Department official, was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013 for a 10-year term as FBI director.
Trump informed Comey in a letter that references the ongoing Russia investigation, and wrote that the White House will find new leadership “that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission.”
“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 said.
In a separate memorandum released by the White House, Rosenstein said Comey’s mistakes came during the investigation related to the presidential election, specifically Clinton’s handling of classified emails when she was secretary of State.
Rosenstein said Comey was wrong to “usurp the Attorney General’s authority” when he announced in July that the Clinton investigation would be closed without prosecution. And he compounded that by holding a press conference that released derogatory information about Clinton from the investigation that “laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial.”
“Almost everyone agrees that the Director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives,” Rosenstein said in the memo.
Schumer pointed to an apparent pattern of firing of Justice Department officials, including the former acting attorney general and the former U.S. attorney based in Manhattan.
“They fired Sally Yates. They fired Preet Bharara, and now they’ve fired Director Comey — the very man leading the investigation. This does not seem to be a coincidence,” Schumer said. “This investigation must be run as far away as possible from this White House and as far away as possible from anyone that President Trump has appointed.”
Schumer also said that he did not believe the real cause for Comey’s ouster was his handling of the investigation of the use of email by Clinton.
“The overwhelming question is this: If the administration had those same questions — the events occurred months ago — then they should have fired Comey the day they came into office,” Schumer said. “So that does not seem to me to be a very logical or persuasive explanation.”
The reaction was swift even out at public events put on by members of the House, who are on recess this week.
During a town hall in Midlothian, Virginia, Rep. Dave Brat was asked whether he would call for a special prosecutor for the Russia investigation given the day’s news about Comey, a question that drew loud applause from the crowd.
“We have oversight committees in the House, in the Senate,” he said, which drew boos from the crowd. “They’re working their course.”
Brat said he believes the oversight committees should continue working the investigation until there is evidence that suggests collusion between the Trump campaign or administration and Russia.
Niels Lesniewski, Joe Williams, John T. Bennett, Lindsey McPherson and Megan Scully contributed to this report.