A political firestorm was ignited by US President Donald Trump after he fired FBI Director James Comey.
James Comey had been leading his agency’s investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential campaign and possible collusion with Trump’s campaign.
Trump said he fired Comey, the top U.S. law enforcement official, over his handling of an election-year email scandal involving then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
The move stunned Washington and raised concerns among Democrats and others that the White House was trying to blunt the FBI probe involving Russia.
Comey had been embroiled in a controversy surrounding his handling of a probe of Clinton’s use of a private email sever while she was US secretary of state. As recently as Tuesday, the FBI clarified remarks that Comey made on the matter last week.
Trump, in a letter to Comey released by the White House, said: “It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission.”
Trump told Comey in the letter he accepted the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he could no longer provide effective leadership. Comey’s term was to run through September 2023. Sessions advised Trump’s campaign before being picked by the president to lead the Justice Department.
Democrats denounced Trump’s move, which some compared to the “Saturday Night Massacre” of 1973, in which President Richard Nixon fired an independent special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.
“Today’s action by President Trump completely obliterates any semblance of an independent investigation into Russian efforts to influence our election, and places our nation on the verge of a constitutional crisis,” said Representative John Conyers, senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Conyers and other Democrats renewed their calls for an independent commission or a special prosecutor to investigate Russian influence in the 2016 election.
The decision, announced by White House press secretary Sean Spicer in a brief appearance before reporters, caught Washington off guard.
Comey had said in July the Clinton email case should be closed without prosecution, but then declared – 11 days before the Nov. 8 election in which Clinton was the Democratic nominee – that he had reopened the investigation because of a discovery of a new trove of Clinton-related emails.
Clinton and other Democrats say they believe Comey’s decision help cost her the election.
The White House released a memo by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that provided the administration’s justification for firing Comey.
“I cannot defend the Director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken,” Rosenstein wrote.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin went to the Senate floor on Tuesday to urge the White House to clarify whether the FBI investigation of Russian interference in the presidential campaign would continue now that Comey has been fired.
“Any attempt to stop or undermine this FBI investigation would raise grave constitutional issues,” Durbin said. “We await clarification by the White House as soon as possible as to whether this investigation will continue.”
Trump, in his letter to Comey, said: “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.”
There are several Russia probes ongoing in Congress. The U.S House of Representatives’ main investigation has been stymied in recent weeks by partisan squabbles, while the Senate’s parallel probe has been slow-moving and equipped with a much smaller staff than previous high-profile congressional investigations.