As the White House defends Comey’s firing, its allies join in deflecting calls for an independent Russia investigation

Then-FBI Director James B. Comey pauses as he testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on May 3.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

The White House sought to portray President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey as an act of decisiveness Wednesday, as administration allies fought back against calls for a special counsel to oversee the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election.

Although the ouster came suddenly and took even the White House staff by surprise, officials who described the timeline of events said it marked the culmination of a long-running erosion of confidence between the FBI chief and the president.

“He wasn’t doing a good job. Very simply,” Trump said in the Oval Office, where he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.


Officials acknowledged, however, that Trump was surprised by the intense reaction to Comey’s dismissal.

Tuesday, in the immediate aftermath, White House aides circulated previous statements from Democrats who had criticized Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of email. They appeared to hope that past Democratic unhappiness with Comey would shield Trump from criticism.

That proved a false hope.

Asked Wednesday whether Trump had anticipated the fierce Democratic response, White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded, “How could he have?”

The Democratic barrage began Wednesday morning with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, who asked all Democratic senators to be in their seats when the chamber convened.

Schumer called for an all-senators briefing with the attorney general and deputy attorney general — separately — so lawmakers could question their rationale and timing for recommending the firing.

“The question is, why did it happen last night?” Schumer said. “Were those investigations getting too close to home for the president?


“We need to get to the bottom of this. Nothing less is at stake than the American people’s faith in our criminal justice system and the integrity of the executive branch,” he said.

Later in the day, at a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the senior Democrat on the panel, said she was “incredulous” about the FBI chief’s dismissal.

“At a minimum, the decision to fire Comey raises questions about the appropriateness and timing of firing the person in charge of an investigation that could — I won’t say would, but could — implicate the administration,” Feinstein said.

“To have this happen, and happen now, is beyond surprising,” she said, as she called for a special prosecutor to be appointed to oversee the Russia investigation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, however, declined to criticize Trump and rejected calls for an independent investigation into Russia’s actions and any links to the Trump campaign.

“Our Democratic colleagues [are] complaining about the removal of the FBI director that they themselves repeatedly criticized,” McConnell said.


An independent investigatory commission, which some Democrats have called for, “would only impede” the Senate Intelligence Committee’s current inquiry, he said.

At the White House, officials said that the final decision to fire Comey came together quickly on Monday.

Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions was at the White House for a regular weekly lunch with White House Counsel Donald McGahn. Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein joined them.

When Trump heard the two were there, he invited them into the Oval Office and said he wanted to talk about Comey, whose conduct he had been angry about for days.

Trump’s frustration over the FBI investigation of contacts between his associates and Russian agents had flared dramatically last week, as Comey was set to make a routine appearance before a congressional panel.

The president wrote on Twitter that Comey had been “the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton,” Trump’s 2016 rival, because he “gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!”


When Comey testified, Trump bristled at his remarks, according to a White House official familiar with the president’s thinking, especially Comey’s comment that he was “mildly nauseous” about the possibility that he had influenced the outcome of the election.

The president’s anger did not abate over a long weekend at his resort in Bedminster, N.J., and when he met with Sessions and Rosenstein, he remained incensed.

White House officials said that Rosenstein had independently decided to undertake a review of Comey’s status when he was confirmed to the No. 2 position at the Justice Department two weeks ago. To ignore the case he laid out would be “malpractice,” one White House spokesman said.

But Rosenstein’s concerns about Comey were very different than Trump’s. He thought Comey had mishandled the investigation into Clinton’s emails last year, largely in ways that were unfair to her.

He objected to Comey’s initial news conference last July as well as his decision in October to reveal that the FBI had reopened its examination of the emails.

Both Trump and Sessions had praised Comey for his actions in October. But now, they seized on Rosenstein’s concerns as a justification for what Trump wanted to do — fire the FBI chief.


Trump told Rosenstein to write up his concerns, Sanders told reporters. Rosenstein did so the next day, and within hours, Trump had ordered the dismissal.

Trump had lost confidence in Comey – and in fact had been considering dismissing Comey from the day he was elected, Sanders said.

“Most importantly, the rank-and-file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director,” she said.

That was at least partially contradicted by a former FBI supervisor with more than two decades in the bureau, who said the reaction among FBI agents was one of shock.

“Probably for as much the way in which it was handled,” the former agent said, speaking on condition of anonymity to characterize discussions he’s had with former colleagues still on the job.

“It was public humiliation of the guy that was wrong; they shouldn’t have done that,” the former agent said. “He’s a nice, charming, considerate guy; most employees like him for his people skills, but his judgment was seriously skewed,” the former agent said.


The reaction to Comey’s firing was mixed inside the bureau, said Frank Scafidi, a 20-year veteran who ran the FBI’s public affairs and congressional relations offices before retiring in 2004.

“We’ve got two camps,” Scafidi said, a division that goes back to splits within the bureau that emerged when Bill Clinton was president.

“There was such a visceral dislike for Hillary Clinton going back to when her husband was president,” he said. Many of the agents who worked in the bureau’s large New York field office liked Trump, he added.

Trump met Wednesday with the FBI’s interim director, Andrew McCabe, as part of what the White House said was an initial effort to restore morale at the agency.

The president would be willing to personally visit with employees at their hulking downtown headquarters, Sanders said.

Whether a Trump visit would help or hinder the mood of rank-and-file bureau officials isn’t clear.


Rosenstein and Sessions, meantime, were considering five candidates to serve as interim director until Trump nominates a full-time replacement, a Justice Department spokesman said.

One of the candidates is McCabe. According to the Justice Department, the others are:

* William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

* Adam Lee, FBI special agent in charge of the Richmond office.

* Michael Anderson, FBI special agent in charge of the Chicago office.

* Paul Abbate, executive assistant director for the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response and Services Branch.

Times staff writer Brian Bennett contributed to this report.



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