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Trump Fires FBI Director James Comey

The surprise dismissal raises questions about the bureau’s independence -- and who will take over its reins.

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President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday, removing from office the veteran head of the agency carrying out a wide-ranging investigation into whether the the real estate mogul and his lieutenants conspired with Russian agents to swing the 2016 election in the Republican candidate’s favor.

“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,” Trump said in a statement.

In the statement, Trump said he had acted on the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein. In a memorandum to the attorney general, Rosenstein said that Comey’s decision to hold a press conference recommending that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not face charges for her use of a private email system had compromised public trust in the FBI.

“The director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial,” Rosenstein wrote. “It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”

While the president retains the power to fire the FBI director, Comey’s dismissal is sure to raise questions about the independence of the most powerful U.S. law enforcement agency. FBI agents are carrying out a sprawling investigation into a Moscow-backed campaign to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

That investigation includes an examination of whether any of Trump’s lieutenants conspired with Kremlin operatives to leak documents and emails stolen from the computer systems of the Democratic Party and Clinton operatives.

In a letter to Comey, Trump thanked the FBI director for what he described as assurances that he is not a target of the investigation. “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’s critics immediately compared Comey’s removal to one of the darkest chapters of the Justice Department’s history, known as the Saturday Night Massacre, when President Nixon in 1973 fired the special prosecutor examining the Watergate break-in and forced the resignation of the attorney general and his deputy.

One former intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the bureaucratic politics of Comey’s firing, said the move could be interpreted as the consolidation of power by Rosenstein, the number two official at the Justice Department. Sessions has recused himself from supervising the FBI’s Russia probe, making Rosenstein the top overseer for the case and the chief decision-maker as to whether to bring charges against Trump lieutenants or Russian agents.

The former intelligence official pointed to Rosenstein’s scathing three-page letter recommending Comey’s firing as evidence of the intensity of the animus that existed within the Justice Department for the FBI chief. Comey’s decision to go public with his decision not to recommend charges for Clinton was made over the objections of Justice Department officials, who viewed the move as a controversial break with past practice.

The firing of an FBI director by a president is not entirely unprecedented. In 1993, President Bill Clinton fired then-FBI chief William Sessions over allegations of ethics violations.

Trump has in recent weeks publicly feuded with Comey, writing on Twitter that the FBI chief “was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!”

Comey was reportedly outraged after Trump claimed that former President Barack Obama had ordered the phone lines tapped at Trump Tower in New York City. Intelligence officials uniformly denied such an order, and Comey eventually testified before Congress that there was no evidence to back up Trump’s explosive claim.

Comey’s firing Tuesday came shortly after he inaccurately told lawmakers that Huma Abedin, an aide to Clinton, had automatically forwarded “forwarded hundreds and thousands” of emails from the former secretary of state’s private email system to a laptop belonging to her disgraced husband, former Rep. Anthony Weiner.

When FBI agents discovered the emails on Weiner’s computer in the weeks before the election, Comey decided to reopen the investigation into Clinton. The decision to do so, revealed in a letter to Congress, cast a cloud of controversy over Clinton’s campaign in its final days.

In the months after the election, Clinton has said Comey’s public announcement of his decision to reopen the investigation cost her the election.

In a letter to Congress Tuesday, an FBI official corrected Comey’s testimony by writing that most of the emails had been stored on the laptop as a backup mechanism.

Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe, will take over as acting director in the interim. As of late Tuesday, there was no word of Trump’s pick to replace Comey.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Tuesday evening that Comey was “notified a short time ago” and that his firing was effective “immediately.”

The announcement of Comey’s firing caught Washington by surprise, and the White House appears to have kept senior lawmakers in the dark about the decision, including at least one member of the so-called Gang of Eight, the senior-most congressional officials and the heads of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the number two Democrat in the Senate, said that any attempt to quash the FBI investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia would “raise grave Constitutional issues” and called for the formation of a special commission or the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Kremlin’s electoral inference and any links to the Trump campaign.

While Democrats have introduced legislation to create such a commission, that proposal has failed to gain widespread traction among Republicans.

But the decision to fire Comey will likely only heighten controversy over the investigation into Russian meddling. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was “troubled” by Comey’s firing, which “further confuses” his committee’s “already difficult” investigation into the Russian effort to interfere in last year’s investigation.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, endorsed Trump’s decision. “Given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well. I encourage the President to select the most qualified professional available who will serve our nation’s interests,” he said.

A former senior FBI official said he expected Comey’s firing to create intense pressure on the bureau from the House and Senate intelligence committees, both of which are carrying out inquiries parallel to the bureau’s investigation. The committees are likely to demand more frequent updates on the FBI’s investigation, which will now be further scrutinized, the former official said.

For the FBI, the firing of a director represents a historic moment, one that will likely likely hurt morale among its employees. “When they march him out the door it’s a slap in the face and a punch in the gut,” the former official said.

Reached by text message, one FBI agent said, “We’re all just a bit shocked.”

Trump’s firing of Comey also caught the FBI director by surprise. He was appearing at an FBI recruiting event in Los Angeles when the news broke and reportedly flashed on television screens behind him. Aides quickly ushered him away.

Robbie Gramer and Jenna McLaughlin contributed to this report.

Update: This article is being updated as the story develops.

Photo credit: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering cyberspace and its conflicts and controversies. He has written for the magazine since 2012 and is a graduate of Harvard University. @eliasgroll

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