WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s stunning firing of FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday throws into question the future of a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible connections to Russia and immediately raised suspicions of an underhanded effort to stymie a probe that has shadowed the administration from the outset.
Democrats likened Tuesday’s ouster to President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” and renewed calls for the appointment of a special prosecutor, and some Republicans also questioned the move.
In his letter to Comey, Trump said the firing was necessary to restore “public trust and confidence” in the FBI. The administration paired the letter with a scathing review by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein of how Comey handled the investigation into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s email practices, including his decision to hold a news conference announcing its findings and releasing “derogatory information” about Clinton.
While Comey has drawn anger from Democrats since he reopened the email investigation in the closing days of last year’s campaign, they didn’t buy that justification for his firing Tuesday. Several Republicans joined them in raising alarms of how it could affect probes into possible coordination between Trump associates and Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Trump will now appoint a successor at the FBI, which has been investigating since late July, and who will almost certainly have an impact on how the investigation moves forward and whether the public will accept its outcome.
“I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination,” Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. said in one of the strongest statements from a Republican. As chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Burr is leading one of the three congressional investigations and has been in regular contact with Comey. “His dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the committee.”
The firing renewed longstanding demands by Democrats for a special prosecutor, especially since the White House has said the firing of Comey was carried out upon the recommendation of senior Justice Department leadership, including Rosenstein, who is overseeing the Russia investigation since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself because of previously unreported contacts with the Russian ambassador.
It was only the second firing of an FBI director in history. President Bill Clinton dismissed William Sessions amid allegations of ethical lapses in 1993.
Democrats compared the ouster to Nixon’s decision to fire the independent special prosecutor overseeing the Watergate investigation in 1973, which prompted the resignations of the Justice Department’s top two officials.
“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, top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said the White House was “brazenly interfering” in the probe.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Congress must form a special committee to investigate Russia’s interference in the election.
Comey was speaking to agents at the FBI’s field office in Los Angeles when the news broke. Television screens in the office began flashing the news, and Comey initially chuckled, according to a law enforcement official who was present and spoke on condition of anonymity. But Comey finished his speech before heading into an office and did not reappear in the main room. He later left Los Angeles on a plane to return to Washington.
Comey’s firing was the latest and most significant White House-driven distraction from the Russia investigations, which Trump has ridiculed and dismissed as a “hoax.” He has denied that his campaign was involved in Russia’s election meddling.
In his brief letter to Comey, Trump thanked him for telling him three times “that I am not under investigation.” The FBI has not confirmed that Comey ever made those assurances to the president. In public hearings, Comey has declined to answer when asked if Trump is under investigation, urging lawmakers not to read anything into that statement.
Comey, 56, was nominated by President Barack Obama for the FBI post in 2013 to a 10-year term, though that appointment does not ensure a director will serve the full term.
Praised frequently by both parties for his independence and integrity, he spent three decades in law enforcement.