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Comey dismissal prompts calls for independent probe into Trump's Russia ties

US President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to fire the man investigating his campaign for possibly coordinating with Russia to sway the 2016 election has raised concerns for the future and integrity of the probe.


Trump’s announcement on Tuesday came as a surprise even to FBI Director James Comey, who was delivering a speech at a Los Angeles field office when the news of his firing was broadcast on a TV playing in the background. Comey initially thought the report was a prank, according to the New York Times.

The president also sent Comey a letter of termination stating that his dismissal stemmed from the recommendations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, who recommended his removal and his replacement with someone “who follows faithfully the rules and principles of the Department of Justice”, which oversees the FBI.

In a more than two-page letter accompanying Sessions’s recommendation, Rosenstein said the FBI’s “reputation and credibility” had suffered from Comey’s “handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary [Hillary] Clinton’s emails” and his “refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken”.

Comey “was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority" in announcing his conclusion that the case "should be closed without prosecution", Rosenstein wrote. "It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement.”

The goal of a federal criminal investigation "is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to justify a federal criminal prosecution, then allow a federal prosecutor who exercises authority delegated by the Attorney General to make a prosecutorial decision, and then – if prosecution is warranted – let the judge and jury determine the facts".

The letter concluded that, "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. Having refused to admit his errors, the Director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions."

Rosenstein was thorough in his critique, making clear that both Democrat and Republican former justice officials felt that Comey had overstepped.

Trump’s letter of dismissal raised its own questions, however, making reference to “three separate occasions” on which Comey allegedly assured him that he was not under investigation himself for possible ties to Russia.

“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 said in his letter.

Comey confirmed in March that the FBI is pursuing a probe into possible “coordination” between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, and testified again before the US Senate judiciary committee on that investigation on May 3. But when asked, Comey has refused to confirm or deny whether the president himself is under investigation.

Republican member of Congress Justin Amash described Trump’s claim in the letter as “bizarre” and called for an independent commission to investigate Russia's role in the election.

In addition to the FBI probe, both the House and Senate intelligence committees are investigating Trump associates for their interactions with Russian officials.

In his first public statements on Comey since news of his dismissal broke, Trump said simply that the FBI director "was not doing a good job". The president made the comments shortly after a closed-door meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office on Wednesday.

Mission accomplished?

Trump had previously hinted that he might seek to remove Comey, who he has repeatedly said went too easy on Clinton in the investigation into her use of a private email server while secretary of state.

“Director Comey was very, very good to Hillary Clinton, that I can tell you,” Trump said in an April 12 interview with Fox News. “If he weren’t, she would be, right now, going to trial,” Trump said, without offering evidence to back up the claim.

He added that while he had “confidence” in the FBI director, it was “not too late” to fire him – comments that sent the Washington rumour mill spinning. “We’ll see what happens,” the president said.

The New York Times reported that Trump had been looking for reasons to fire Comey “since at least last week” – the week of Comey's most recent Senate testimony – and that Attorney General Sessions had been asked to come up with reasons to dismiss him.

And then on Monday, ProPublica broke the story that Comey had overstated the extent of the Clinton team’s infractions with regard to the emails found on a laptop at the home of Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Comey told the Senate committee that Abedin had forwarded “hundreds and thousands” of Clinton emails to her husband, “some of which contain classified information”, so that he could print them out for her. The laptop in question was seized from the home Abedin shared with her now estranged husband Anthony Weiner, a former congressman who was under investigation for sexting with an underage girl.

The FBI subsequently sent a letter of clarification correcting Comey’s statement, saying that Abedin manually forwarded only “a small number” of emails and that most of those found on the Weiner laptop resulted from the “backup” of personal electronic devices.

The decision to fire Comey right now offers the White House immediate political cover on two fronts: The move comes with a vigorous recommendation from the heads of the Justice Department and in the wake of new questions over Comey’s credibility after he misstated facts related to a Clinton (and conveniently not a Trump) investigation.

The New York Times reported that days before he was fired, Comey asked the Justice Department for a significant increase in both money and personnel for the investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the presidential election.

Calls for a special prosecutor

Whatever the reasons behind Comey’s firing, it breaks with a longstanding US tradition that allows FBI directors to serve out their 10-year mandates despite changes in presidential administrations with a view to preserving their political independence.

Moreover, Trump has now become the first president since Richard M. Nixon to fire an official charged with overseeing an investigation involving the White House. In a flurry of events dubbed the "Saturday Night Massacre", Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal in 1973. Both the attorney general and his deputy resigned in protest rather than comply.

“Clearly, the president is attempting to hamper an investigation that affects him, and those who were and are around him[,] and to brazenly lie about why he is doing it,” said Norman Eisen, who served as former president Barack Obama’s special counsel on ethics, in an email. Eisen now chairs the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government watchdog group that has sued Trump for possible violations of the emoluments clause.

The Senate minority leader, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, told Trump in a phone call that the president was making “a big mistake” in firing Comey.

Schumer went on to call for a special prosecutor to lead the investigation into Russian election meddling, saying the investigation “must be run as far away as possible from this White House".

“If we don't get a special prosecutor, every American will rightfully suspect that the decision to fire #Comey was part of a cover-up,” he later wrote on Twitter.

Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, also said the Justice Department must appoint a special prosecutor in light of recent events. The decision to dismiss Comey “raises profound questions about whether the White House is brazenly interfering in a criminal matter”, he said.

Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said late Tuesday that he still wanted the panel to hear the outgoing director’s testimony.

"I still want him to come and testify, even as former FBI director," Warner said in an interview with CNN.

Eisen said that Trump’s dismissal of Comey is “likely to backfire”, noting that only three Republican senators would need to side with Democrats in a vote “to give the Senate investigation more teeth, including subpoenas of its own and hearings”.

Several Republican senators have already publicly criticised Trump for sacking Comey.

Senator Richard Burr, the intelligence committee’s Republican chairman, said in a statement that he found the reasons provided for Comey's termination perplexing.

"I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Comey's termination," Burr said. "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."

Comey's "removal at this particular time will raise questions", said Senator Bob Corker, another Republican. Any FBI inquiries must be "fulsome and free of political interference until their completion", he added.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake said that he just could not “find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey's firing”.

Others downplayed the effect Comey’s departure would have on any ongoing investigations.

“I don’t think it will have an impact, certainly not on the intelligence committee’s work,” senator and former Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio told the New York Times. Rubio also sits on the committee investigating whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia.

Eisen said that the facts behind Trump’s ties to Russia will in all likelihood be revealed, one way or the other.

“The president may have slowed the investigation down, but whether it happens in Congress or otherwise, the evidence is likely to come out, including evidence about his own Russian financial ties that may explain his bizarre behaviour from the start of Russia's attack on our democracy,” he said. 

But despite the bipartisan appeals now ringing around the Capitol, some observers are doubtful that Democrats and Republicans will unite to get to the bottom of Russia’s alleged attempts to swing the November election in Trump’s favour.

"We haven't had a voice from within the Trump administration denounce this yet," noted Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, in comments to AP.

"I think at this moment the question is, will leading Republicans step out of the box and become profiles of courage?"

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