Updated on May 9, 2017 at 8:44 p.m.
Democrats are calling for an independent investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election following the news that President Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey. The White House announced Comey’s dismissal on Tuesday evening.
So far, reaction in Congress to Comey’s removal has split along partisan lines. Some high-ranking Republican lawmakers appeared supportive of the president’s decision to dismiss the head of the nation’s top law enforcement agency, which has been investigating potential connections between the Trump campaign and alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. A number of Democrats, on the other hand, expressed shock and outrage over the dismissal, renewing calls for an independent investigation into the matter.
Comey’s exit raises questions about the future of the FBI’s politically charged investigation into the 2016 election, since Trump has the power to nominate the director’s replacement, and thus the official charged with overseeing that inquiry.
In a letter sent to Comey on Tuesday, Trump stated that the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General recommended his dismissal, and that he concurred with the “judgement of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.” A separate letter from the deputy Attorney General suggested that the FBI director had improperly handled the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server. Two additional inquiries from the House and Senate into Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign have both, to varying degrees, been hampered by partisan disagreement.
“The only way the American people can have faith in this investigation is for it to be led by a fearless, independent special prosecutor,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement, adding that if that does not happen, “every American will rightly suspect that the decision to fire Director Comey was part of a cover-up.”
Democrat Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, urged the appointment of an “independent prosecutor,” saying that the chain of events “raises profound questions about whether the White House is brazenly interfering in a criminal manner.”
“We need an independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia,” Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who is part of Senate Democratic leadership, said in a statement.
“The president of the United States just fired the person who was investigating his campaign, which should set off alarm bells across the country,” Senator Cory Booker said, urging the appointment of “an independent special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the U.S. election.”
On Twitter, Democratic Senator Brian Schatz wrote bluntly: “We are in a full-fledged constitutional crisis.”
Senator Mark Warner, the vice chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, called it “deeply troubling that the president has fired the FBI director during an active counterintelligence investigation into improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.”
“The need for a special prosecutor is now crystal clear. President Trump has catastrophically compromised the FBI’s ongoing investigation of his own White House’s ties to Russia,” Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said in a statement.
In January, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report, which concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin “ordered an influence campaign” intended to meddle in the 2016 presidential election with the goal of undermining “public faith in the U.S. democratic process,” and harm Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency.
Political analysts have argued that Comey’s July press conference on the investigation into whether Hillary Clinton had improperly handled classified information, and his late October 2016 announcement that the FBI would review additional emails in connection with the probe, fatally harmed Clinton’s presidential chances.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein cited both incidents in a letter concluding that “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.” At the time, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a Republican Senator from Alabama, praised Comey’s decision. Sessions said that Comey had an “absolute duty, in my opinion, 11 days or not, to come forward with the new information that he has and let the American people know that, too.”
In March, FBI Director Comey publicly confirmed that the bureau is in the process of investigating Russian efforts to intervene in the election, a probe that Comey said at the time “includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
Some prominent Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, appeared sympathetic or supportive of the president’s decision to dismiss Comey.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley criticized Comey’s handling of “the Clinton email investigation,” pointing to it as “a clear example of how Comey’s decisions have called into question the trust and political independence of the FBI.” Grassley stated that “under Comey’s leadership,” the FBI had “been slow or failed to provide information that Comey himself pledged to provide,” adding that “the effectiveness of the FBI depends upon the public trust and confidence,” which Grassley added, “has clearly been lost.”
Senator Lindsey Graham put out a statement saying that “given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start with serve the FBI and the nation well.”
Senator Susan Collins said in a statement that “any suggestion that today’s announcement is somehow an effort to stop the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s attempt to influence the election last fall is misplaced,” adding that she has “every confidence that the FBI will continue to pursue its investigation.”
Not every Republican senator expressed confidence in the decision, however.
Senator Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was “troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination,” adding that “his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee.”
Senator John McCain said he was “disappointed in the president’s decision to remove James Comey from office,” calling Comey “a man of honor and integrity.” McCain added that he has previously called “for a special congressional committee to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election,” and added that the firing of the FBI director “only confirms the need and urgency of such a committee.”