Donald Trump’s sudden sacking of FBI director James Comey has sparked a storm of criticism in Washington, with Democrats and Republicans raising questions about the timing of the dismissal.
They argue it may have aimed to hamper an investigation that Comey was leading to determine whether Trump’s campaign team colluded with Russia to sway the 2016 election.
The Trump administration has denied this, saying the firing was over Comey’s handling of a probe last year into then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state.
Comey was heavily criticised for his back-and-forth on the email probe and his decision to reopen it just days before the election – before concluding Clinton should not face criminal charges. Clinton has described the investigation as fatal to her campaign.
As usual, Trump took to Twitter to defend his move, and predicted he will eventually be praised for it: “Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike,” he wrote. “When things calm down, they will be thanking me!”
“James Comey will be replaced by someone who will do a far better job, bringing back the spirit and prestige of the FBI,” he added.
Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe, took over as acting FBI director while the White House searches for a new permanent director.
Though many Democrats have criticised Comey’s management of the Clinton probe, they said they were troubled by the timing of his dismissal, given Trump could have acted much sooner after taking office.
Several US news outlets, including POLITICO, have reported that Trump was furious with Comey over the Russia investigation and was looking for a reason to fire him.
The New York Times, citing four congressional officials, reported that days before he was fired, Comey had asked the Justice Department for more funding for the Russia investigation. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department refuted the report.
Some Democrats compared the move to the “Saturday Night Massacre” of 1973, in which President Richard Nixon fired an independent special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in a January report that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered an effort to disrupt the 2016 election that included hacking into Democratic Party emails and leaking them, with the aim of helping Trump.
Both the Trump administration and Russia have denied any collusion, but Democrats have now called for an independent probe on the topic.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described Comey’s dismissal as a “completely internal affair” he hoped would not affect relations between the US and Russia.
Comey’s ouster came as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Washington for high-level meetings, including one with Trump at the White House – the highest-level contact between Trump and the Russian government since he took office.
“I believe that politicians are damaging the political system of the U.S., trying to pretend that someone is controlling America from the outside,” Lavrov said.