As calls for an independent prosecutor intensify on both sides of the aisle, President Trump and aides argued Wednesday that the firing of FBI Director James Comey had nothing to do with the agency’s ongoing investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
“He wasn’t doing a good job,” Trump told reporters about his reasons for firing Comey, his first in-person remarks to reporters since Tuesday’s abrupt dismissal.
His remarks came after a Wednesday meeting that only sharpened the debate over the Russia investigation: an Oval Office sit-down with Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The Comey issue did not affect the “good meeting” with Lavrov, Trump said as he sat next to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted: “The Democrats have said some of the worst things about James Comey, including the fact that he should be fired, but now they play so sad!”
Democrats, saying Trump is trying to short-circuit the Russia investigation, united in their calls for the appointment of a special prosecutor — and even some Republicans on Wednesday began to broach the idea.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, speaking on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and other television news programs, said the FBI director’s overall record subjected him to dismissal. Sanders cited the recommendations of Justice Department leaders who said Comey had lost his effectiveness as the bureau’s leader — in part because of his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
Comey announced just 11 days before the November presidential election that he was reopening the probe into Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of State. As Sanders noted in her interview defending the firing, many Democrats blamed for her loss to Trump in the November election.
Stressing the Trump administration has no plans to get involved in FBI business, Sanders said the Russia investigations will “continue whether Jim Comey is there or not.”
Disputing Trump’s reasoning on the timing, Democrats insisted that Trump could have fired Comey over his handling of the Clinton investigation anytime during the past four months he’s been in office. Instead, they said, the president waited until the various Russia investigations heated up. “He feels the noose tightening,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee, also speaking on Morning Joe.
Kaine noted that, in Trump’s termination letter to Comey, the president thanked the FBI director for “you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”
As Kaine put it: “That shows a deeply insecure president.”
As many Democrats described the Comey dismissal as “Nixonian,” in reference to President Richard Nixon’s firing of the Watergate special prosecutor in 1973, there could be some Republican support for an independent investigation. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., told MSNBC that Comey’s firing makes it “hard to resist” calls for a special prosecutor. “It’s pretty tough to fire the guy who’s investigating your campaign,” Dent said.
Other Republicans joined in the criticism of the timing of Trump’s stunning move.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., heading up one of the investigations as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he is “troubled by the timing and reasoning” of Comey’s firing. He added that it “further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee.”
Trump, of course, doesn’t see it that way. During his morning tweet storm, Trump said that “Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike. When things calm down, they will be thanking me!”
The president said he will hire someone “who will do a far better job” in restoring the FBI’s prestige.
The new director will inherit an ongoing investigation into whether there was any collusion between associates of the Trump campaign and Russian who sought to influence last year’s election by hacking Democrats close to Clinton and releasing the stolen information to websites such as WikiLeaks.
The investigation focuses on whether there are any Russian links to Trump associates Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager; Carter Page, a member of a Trump foreign policy advisory board; and Roger Stone, a long-time friend and political adviser to Trump.
Manafort, Page, and Stone have all denied collusion with Russia during the 2016 election.
Trump’s decision to fire Comey comes amid a flood of news about the Russia investigation. On Monday, Sally Yates, the acting attorney general Trump fired earlier in his term, told a Senate panel that she warned the White House that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had lied about contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and was therefore vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Trump later fired Flynn.
White House officials downplayed the timing of all these developments, however, insisting that the same Democrats condemning the decision have in the past called for Comey’s removal over his handling of last year’s Clinton email investigation.
In the report that Trump used to justify his decision, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein criticized Comey for holding a July 5 news conference to announce that charges would not be filed against Clinton, even as he criticized her over the handling of classified information. “We do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation,” Rosenstein said. His letter recommending firing also specifically mentioned Comey’s decision to announce new investigation in the Clinton investigation on October 28.
Trump, meanwhile, had praised Comey for re-opening the investigation in October – and has in the months since complimented the FBI director. Introducing Comey during a White House event in January, Trump said that “he’s become more famous than me.”
At the White House, Trump’s relatively light public schedule guarantees that questions about Russia will continue to be front and center.
The president’s meeting with Lavrov was the only public event on his public schedule so far.
After a State Department meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Lavrov laughed off questions about the Comey firing and the Russia investigation.
“Was he fired?” Lavrov told reporters. “You’re kidding? You’re kidding?”