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President Trump Fires FBI Director James Comey

Variety logo Variety 5/9/2017 Alex Stedman
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President Donald Trump dismissed James Comey from his position as FBI Director on Tuesday.

“Today, President Donald J. Trump informed FBI Director James Comey that he has been terminated and removed from office. President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions,” said White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer in a statement.

“The FBI is one of our Nation’s most cherished and respected institutions and today will mark a new beginning for our crown jewel of law enforcement,” said Trump.

He sent a letter to Comey on Tuesday, informing him that Rosenstein and Sessions had recommended his removal.

“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 wrote.

Rosenstein laid out the case for firing Comey in a memo in which he wrote that “over the past year, the FBI’s reputation and credibility have suffered substantial damage, and it has affected the entire Department of Justice.”

He cited Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. Comey announced in July that the investigation was completed and there would be no prosecution, although he was critical of Clinton’s handling of classified information.

Rosenstein wrote that he could “not 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.”

He wrote that Comey “was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution. It is not the function of the director to make such an announcement. At most, the director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors.”

Rosenstein wrote that “compounding the error” was that Comey held a press conference “to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation.”

“The director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial,” he wrote.

Comey’s firing, however, is likely to raise questions of independence, as the FBI is currently investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian sources related to the hacking attacks during the 2016 campaign. Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee earlier this year, Comey confirmed the investigation, and said that that in and of itself was a bit unusual for the bureau.

On Tuesday, the FBI clarified testimony that Comey gave to a Senate committee last week. In explaining why the FBI reopened its investigation into Clinton’s emails, just 11 days before the election, Comey talked about the discovery of a trove of emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. He said that Weiner’s wife, Clinton aide Huma Abedin, forwarded “hundreds and thousands of emails” to her spouse. The FBI clarified that statement to say that only two email chains with classfied information were forwarded from Abedin to Weiner, with the rest ending up on his server as a result of automatic backup.

Comey announced two days before the election that the investigation of the new trove of emails turned up no new information. Clinton said in an interview last week that she believes that Comey’s announcement at the end of October was a major contributing factor in her defeat.

Rosenstein also wrote in his memo that he found fault with the way that Comey handled the discovery of the new trove of Clinton emails. Comey informed members of Congress on Oct. 28, upending the presidential campaign.

Rosenstein noted that Comey defended his decision as one between choosing to “speak” about it or to “conceal” it.

“‘Conceal’ is a loaded term that misstates the issue,” Rosenstein wrote. “When federal agents and prosecutors quietly open a criminal investigation, we are not concealing anything; we are simply following the longstanding policy that we refrain from publicizing non-public information. In that context, silence is not concealment.”

But Trump and Sessions then praised Comey’s move to reopen the investigation.

In the wake of Comey’s firing, the White House sent out a one-sheet rundown of criticism that Democrats have directed at him. Indeed, many Democrats would probably agree with Rosenstein’s criticism of the way he handled the Clinton email investigation.

But that is unlikely to stop the furor over Trump’s decision, given the FBI’s ongoing probe into Russian hacking and suspicions that this is the White House’s way to squelch it.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the raking member of the House Oversight Committee, called for an emergency hearing  “to obtain testimony directly from Attorney General Sessions, the deputy attorney general, and FBI Director Comey.

“The White House was already covering up for Michael Flynn by refusing to provide a single document to Congress, and now the President fired the one independent person who was doing the most to investigate President Trump and his campaign over allegations of coordination with Russia,” Cummings said in a statement.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for an independent special prosecutor to look into the Trump campaign-Russia ties, “to restore faith in our criminal justice system.” Otherwise, he said, “everyone will suspect cover up.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) said that he was “disappointed” by the move, and again called for a special committee to look into Russian interference into the election.

“The president’s decision to remove the FBI Director only confirms the need and the urgency of such a committee,” he said.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley supported the move.

“The handling of the Clinton email investigation is a clear example of how Comey’s decisions have called into question the trust and political independence of the FBI,” he said in a statement. “In my efforts to get answers, the FBI, under Comey’s leadership, has been slow or failed to provide information that Comey himself pledged to provide.

“The effectiveness of the FBI depends upon the public trust and confidence.  Unfortunately, this has clearly been lost.”

Comey was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013. When news of his firing broke, he was at the FBI field office in Los Angeles for a diversity event, with some reports that he learned of it from TV reports flashing on screens as he spoke to employees. Trump’s letter was hand delivered to FBI offices in Washington.

He was scheduled to speak at an FBI event at the Directors Guild of America in West Hollywood, as part of an FBI campaign to boost recruitment, but there were conflicting reports as to whether the appearance was cancelled.

Other reaction:

David Axelrod, former senior adviser to Obama, tweeted that it was a “disastrous decision.”

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