U.S. President Donald Trump has fired FBI Director James Comey, raising questions about the agency's probe into Russian meddling in the November presidential election and possible collusion between Trump campaign aides and Russian interests.
Trump, in a blunt letter to Comey Tuesday, told him: “You are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.” The president added that Comey “is not able to effectively lead the bureau.”
FBI directors are appointed for a single 10-year term. Comey was appointed four years ago.
Comey was speaking to a group of FBI employees in California when he learned he had been fired. Media reports say he saw mention of his dismissal on TV screens but initially thought it was a prank. So far, he has not made any public statement.
The reasons for Comey’s dismissal were outlined in two separate letters written by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein. They essentially accused Comey of taking the law into his own hands.
Comey “made serious mistakes” handling the conclusion of the investigation of emails of Trump’s general election opponent Hillary Clinton, wrote Rosenstein, accusing the FBI director of usurping the attorney general’s authority when Comey concluded there should be no prosecution of the former secretary of state.
It is not clear why President Trump took the action now concerning events that occurred months before he won last November’s presidential election.
A Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham, said “given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well."
But for some other Republican members of Congress the president’s action caused a breach.
Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said he is "troubled by the timing and reasoning" of the Comey firing. He called the dismissal "a loss for the bureau and the nation."
John McCain, a Republican who sits on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee, said in a statement that “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.”
Another Republican senator, Jeff Flake, on the Twitter social media network said he “had spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey’s firing. I just can’t do it.”
Congressman Justin Amash, a Republican member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said on Twitter he is “reviewing legislation to establish an independent commission on Russia” and termed “bizarre” Trump’s reference in the termination letter to Comey noting the FBI director had assured the president repeatedly he was not under investigation.
Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee called Trump’s action “Nixonian” -- a reference to President Richard Nixon’s firing of officials investigating him during the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.
Democratic Party senators are calling for appointment of a special prosecutor to continue the Justice Department’s investigation into alleged ties between Trump’s presidential campaign last year and Russia.
On the Senate floor, Dick Durbin, a Democrat who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, said any attempt to halt or undermine the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the presidential campaign “would raise grave constitutional issues.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he told Trump “you’re making a very big mistake” by firing Comey, amid various investigations connected to the president’s 2016 campaign.
“Why now?” added Schumer. “Are people going to suspect coverup? Absolutely.”
"The Rosenstein memorandum is based on long-standing principles governing criminal investigations, but the timing - that is so problematic and concerning,” George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley told VOA.
Hours after Comey’s firing CNN reported that grand jury subpoenas were recently issued in Alexandria, Virginia relating to the FBI’s Russia probe seeking business records from associates of Michael Flynn, who Trump fired as national security advisor.
The subpoenas would be the first known significant escalation of activity in the government investigation into possible connections between the associates of the Trump presidential campaign and Russia.
Earlier Tuesday, the FBI notified Congress that Comey overstated a key finding in the investigation of Democrat Hillary Clinton's emails during his congressional testimony last week. It said Comey erred when he told a congressional investigative panel that a Clinton aide, Huma Abedin, had sent "hundreds and thousands" of Clinton's emails from the 2009 to 2013 period she was the U.S. Secretary of State to Abedin's estranged husband, disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner. The actual number was far fewer, officials said.
VOA's Pete Heinlein contributed to this report.