Government & Politics

Comey firing leaves Congress in a quandary over its election meddling probes

The shock firing of FBI Director James Comey Tuesday casts a shadow over the future of congressional investigations into Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election on behalf of President Donald Trump.

Comey, who has testified before both the Senate and House intelligence committees on several occasions as well as before other committees on the topic, had emerged in recent months clearly as the point person in the investigation. Senators and representatives were not shy about the fact that congressional investigations leaned heavily on him.

His firing was described as “Nixonian” by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who is on the Senate intelligence committee, said: “President Trump called me at 5:30 p.m. and indicated he would be removing Director Comey, saying the FBI needed a change. The next FBI director must be strong and independent.”

Even longtime Trump supporter Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee and is leading that panel’s investigation of Russian meddling, said he was “troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination.”

“His dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the committee,” Burr said in a statement. “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.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was one of many to call the firing proof that a special prosecutor was needed to oversee the Russian meddling investigation.

He called Comey’s dismissal “shocking” and “deeply troubling.” Warner said a pattern appears to be developing in the Trump administration.

“The administration insists there’s no ‘there there,’ yet President Trump has so far fired the acting attorney general, nearly every U.S. attorney, and now the director of the FBI,” he said in a statement. “In addition, this president’s choice for attorney general has been forced to recuse himself, and the national security adviser has resigned, as a result of undisclosed contacts with Russian officials . . . It is vital that our ongoing investigation is completed in a credible and bipartisan way.”

Comey’s firing occurred as federal investigators closed in on several former Trump campaign aides who had contacts with Russia at a time when U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded the Kremlin had launched a cyber offensive aimed at helping Trump win the White House.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was fired as Trump’s national security adviser in February, publicly sought immunity for testimony to congressional intelligence committees about the matter. Among offenses he may have committed is failing to win approval from the Pentagon before he was paid for a speech in Russia in 2015, where he dined with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and failing to register as a foreign agent as required by U.S. law while being paid by a company with ties to Turkey.

But Flynn also was acknowledged as central to the investigation of possible collusion between Trump, his associates and Russia.

When asked recently about possible criminal charges that might come from the investigation, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, said, “That’s not our part of this. That’s up to the FBI and Department of Justice.”

Schiff said that he had his issues with Comey in the past, but that the firing raised doubts about Trump’s decision making process.

“The decision by a president whose campaign associates are under investigation by the FBI for collusion with Russia to fire the man overseeing that investigation, upon the recommendation of an attorney general who has recused himself from that investigation, raises profound questions about whether the White House is brazenly interfering in a criminal matter,” he said.

He also noted that the move reminded him of actions by President Richard Nixon as the Watergate scandal unfolded. “The same president who has called the investigation into the Russian hacking of our democracy and the potential complicity of his campaign a ‘fake,’ cannot pretend to have made such a decision uninfluenced by his concerns over Comey’s continued involvement in the investigation.”

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif and a member of the intelligence committee, said that Comey's testimony to the committee in March set this firing in motion. She described the possible collusion with Russia to interfere in the election as a “treasonous act.”

“The president has been unhinged since the March 20th hearing, when Comey released a bombshell and specifically outlined the extent to which the investigation now included the Trump campaign,” she said in a text message.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he feared the move put the Russia investigation at risk.

“I am deeply concerned that this decision will result in an abandonment of the FBI’s ongoing efforts and it underscores the urgent need for an independent investigation,” he said in an email.

A source familiar with the FBI-led, multi-agency inquiry into Russia's election meddling said that, despite concerns that Trump was trying to stifle the investigation, “no one is going to be able to shut this down.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, the source suggested that the White House may have reacted to Comey's “multiple testimonies because he's been calling it the way he sees it. He's been very blunt.”

Democrats were furious with Comey over publicly re-opening the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails in the days before the election.

Just last week, Feinstein grilled Comey about his role in turning what was expected to be a Clinton presidential victory into a Trump win.

“Why was it necessary to announce 11 days before a presidential election that you were opening an investigation on a new computer without any knowledge of what was in that computer?” she asked him during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “Why didn’t you just do the investigation as you would normally with no public announcement?”

An hour after hearing Comey had been fired, Feinstein noted that Comey also had become a target of Republicans.

Comey earned Republican hostility March 20 when he told the House Intelligence Committee that the FBI “as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”

The news stunned the nation – and the Trump administration. But it was hardly the only bomb Comey dropped in congressional appearances. At one point, he was moving between committees looking at different angles on the investigation so frequently that aides joked he needed a dedicated parking space. He testified in recent months about the state of the FBI investigation, which he described in March as nine months old, but still in its early stages.

Testifying before the Senate last week, he noted, “I know you look at me like I’m crazy for saying this about this job. I love this work. I love this job.”

Members of Congress noted that their staffs are diligent, but that they don’t have the FBI’s resources or experience in criminal investigations or the capabilities of the intelligence community. Much of the work of Senate and House committees was reviewing the work already completed by FBI agents and other intelligence gatherers.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said the firing “should send a chill down the spine of every American, no matter who they voted for. This is not what an innocent person would do; this is an abuse of power, and shows a consciousness of guilt.”

Swalwell, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s move screams political interference, dubbing it the “Tuesday Afternoon Massacre.”

“The administration of justice must remain free of political influence, and President Trump has just leaped over that line,” he said. “If he thinks this will halt or even slow investigations into his and his associates’ conduct, he is sadly mistaken.”

Casey added that the move indicates that new Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “must immediately appoint a special counsel to continue the Trump/Russia investigation.”

Flynn was fired for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about phone conversations he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. But it was disclosed at a Senate hearing on Monday that Trump knew Flynn had lied about those calls for 18 days and was dismissed only after the Washington Post disclosed that acting Attorney General Sally Yates had warned the White House about Flynn.

In his memo, Rosenstein said his views about Comey’s handling of secret investigations were shared by numerous former deputy attorneys general and attorneys general. He quoted Eric Holder, who served as attorney general during most of the Obama administration, and Jamie Gorelick, deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, alongside former Republican attorneys general Gonzales and Michael Mukasey.

However, none of the comments from former top Justice Department officials portrayed such a policy deviation as grounds for dismissal.

American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony D. Romero insisted that the “independence of the FBI director is meant to ensure that the president does not operate above the law. For President Trump to fire the man responsible for investigating his own campaign’s ties to the Russians imperils that fundamental principle.”

Greg Gordon contributed to this report.

Matthew Schofield: 202-383-6066, @mattschodcnews