WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday fired FBI Director James Comey, sweeping away the man who is responsible for the bureau’s investigation into whether members of his campaign team colluded with Russia in its interference in last year’s election.
The bombshell announcement that sent shock and surprise ricocheting through Washington ends the career of the man who was once seen as the unimpeachable and nonpartisan ideal of how a law enforcement officer should behave.
But Comey saw his reputation tarnished when he was dragged into the toxic politics of the 2016 campaign.
The Trump administration attributed Comey’s dismissal to his handling of the investigation into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s email server, but Democrats ridiculed that notion, raising parallels to Watergate-era firings and suggested Comey was getting too close to the White House with the Russia probe.
In any case, senior White House officials appeared to have badly misjudged the impact of Trump’s sudden move.
A source with knowledge of discussions inside the White House said the thinking was that because Democrats were saying precisely what Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a letter explaining the grounds for Comey’s dismissal there would be no backlash.
What was not thought through apparently was an explanation of why Comey was fired now, at a time when critics would immediately conclude it was because of the Russia probe.
In recent days, Comey again came under fire for his handling of the investigation into Clinton’s private email server.
Many Democrats believe his announcement that he was reopening the probe 11 days before the election cost the former secretary of state the presidency.
Comey learned of his dismissal from televisions tuned to the news, as he was addressing the workforce at the FBI office in Los Angeles, law enforcement sources said.
The source said he made a joke about it to lighten the mood and called his office to get confirmation.
In a signed letter released by the White House, Trump informed Comey that he was “hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately,” explaining that he reached the conclusion that Comey is “not able to effectively lead the bureau.”
“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. “I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.”
At the center of Rosenstein’s rationale for recommending Comey’s firing was the director’s handling of the investigation into Clinton’s private server, namely his decision to recommend no charges be filed and the news conference he held to explain his reasoning.
Rosenstein accused Comey of attempting to “usurp the attorney general’s authority” by publicly announcing why he felt the case should be closed without prosecution.
“Compounding the error, the director ignored another longstanding principle: We do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation,” Rosenstein argued in his memo.
“We should reject the departure and return to the traditions (of the bureau). The way the director handled the conclusion of the email investigation was wrong. As a result, the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them.”
But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he told Trump on the telephone that he had made a terrible mistake.
“Were these investigations getting too close to home for the president?” Schumer asked
And in a sign of possible trouble for the administration, Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who is leading an Senate intelligence committee probe into alleged Russian influence on the election, expressed disquiet at the firing of Comey, which he described as a “loss for the bureau and the nation.
“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,” Burr said.
As Democrats renewed their demands for a special counsel, arguing the Trump Justice Department could not be trusted to oversee the case, Republicans insisted that one was not needed.
“I think Rod Rosenstein, the new deputy attorney general, is competent to lead that effort,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the GOP leadership.
But Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee said that though Rosenstein’s rationale for removing Comey was sound, it, would “raise questions.”
Sen. John McCain added: “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.”
The Arizona senator renewed his request for a special congressional committee to review the Russia allegations.
Former Clinton campaign officials accused Trump of using the furor over Comey’s handling of the email server as a ruse to get out from under the Russia investigation.
“I was as frustrated, concerned and disappointed as anyone with Director Comey’s handling of the email investigation, but President Trump just fired the man investigating how Russia meddled in our election and whether members of his campaign were involved, an investigation President Trump called “charade” only 24 hours ago,” said Clinton’s former campaign manager Robby Mook.
“It’s equally concerning that our attorney general, who lied about his own meetings with the Russians, approved Director Comey’s firing,.”
Senior Justice Department and FBI officials said they were unaware of the Comey decision until the announcement.
Comey’s term was due to run until 2023. The decade-long tenure was introduced to shield FBI directors from being drawn into politics, but the position is still subject to dismissal at the pleasure of the president.
Comey’s last appearance on Capitol Hill last week exacerbated doubts about his position.
Just before news of his dismissal broke, his office issued a statement aiming to clear up his testimony that former Clinton aide Huma Abedin “forwarded hundreds and thousands” of emails to her husband’s laptop.
The note, signed by Gregory Brower, assistant director of the FBI’s Office of Congressional Affairs, clarified that the “hundreds and thousands of emails” that Comey said were ‘forwarded” from Abedin to her husband’s email “included emails transferred via backups as well as manual forwarding.”
The White House said it will immediately launch the search for a new FBI director. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is the acting FBI director, according to a message sent to employees by Sessions.
Comey was appointed FBI director by President Barack Obama in 2013.