President Trump’s surprise decision to fire FBI Director James Comey sent Capitol Hill scrambling, with Democrats suggesting a potential cover-up, at least a few Republicans questioning the move and many Republicans parroting the White House’s spin justifying the termination.
In a floor speech, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) Tuesday defended the decision. But Democrats, as they headed into a conference meeting Wednesday morning, were not backing down from from their calls for a special prosecutor in the investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential investigation, which Comey was overseeing and had included an examination of Trump campaign affiliates ties to Russia.
“I continue to believe that we need a special prosecutor and I am going to press for one,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told reporters. Blumenthal is working on legislation to bring on an independent counsel to investigate Trump ties to Russia
“It’s got to be just shocking to the American people that a person who’s involved in an investigation—that’s not to say there’s any target of an investigation, but involved in an investigation— would fire the person whose responsible for that investigation,” said Ben Cardin (D-MD). “That’s outrageous. That doesn’t happen in American politics without consequences.”
The White House has claimed that Trump fired Comey due to his politicization of the FBI while handling the probe into Clinton’s private email server, which Trump previously said should have resulted in Clinton in jail. A letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein dated Tuesday, which the White House pointed to as justification for the removal, criticized Comey for the public press conference announcement that no charges would be brought against the 2016 Democratic nominee.
“We’re going to get to the facts,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the Senate GOP No. 2, told reporters at the Capitol.
“I agree Director Comey is a good man. He made a bad mistake,” he said, referring to the handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, which the White House has touted as the reasoning for Comey’s firing.
Some GOP senators on Capitol Hill were more than happy to regurgitate the administration’s spin that Democrats should be satisfied with Comey’s firing, given their past criticisms of his performance.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) pointed to negative comments made previously about Comey by Democrats such as Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and said, “This not partisan.”
“The only reason it’s become partisan today is all the Democrats who wanted him to go now have flipped and now they say somehow it has to do with something else,” Paul said.
Democrats vehemently shot down this logic.
“If this were about the Clinton campaign, he should have fired him on January 20. It’s only about this investigation,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (R-OH) told TPM.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the top Dem on the Judiciary Committee, said that she believed, based on the Justice Department letters recommending Comey’s firing put out by the White House, that Rosenstein was “put in a position and carried on as sort of the executioner of Comey, which I’ve got to say surprised me.”
Feinstein went on to ask at a Judiciary Committee hearing later Wednesday morning, “If the reason for firing Comey was because of his handling of the Clinton investigation, why now?” She pointed to reports suggesting the Russian investigation was the real reason.
Beyond the timing of Comey’s firing, Democrats also raised concerns about Attorney General Jeff Sessions involvement in the decision, given that Sessions had previously recused himself from investigations involving the Trump campaign.
“What he did was a blatant disregard for the statement that he made with, respect to his recusal. … There are serious questions in my view about his fitness for office,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who sits on the Senate Intel Committee, said.
Even Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who described himself as a friend of Sessions, a former senator, said Sessions’ role “does complicate things.”
“The White House, after multiple conversations with many people over the last 12-14 hours, understands that they’ve created a really difficult situation from themselves,” Corker told reporters.
At least a few GOP senators expressed the desire for a little more clarity around the decision to fire Comey.
“In terms of the timing of it, those are questions that the administration will have to answer,” said Sen. John Thune (R-SD), a member of Senate GOP leadership. Thune said that, nonetheless, he understood the rationale behind it.
“I want to get a full debriefing of what’s occurring at this point,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) said, adding he found the decision to be “a little poor in timing.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who initially sent out a statement mostly supportive of Trump’s decision, said she was “reviewing” the Justice Department regulations on appointing a special counsel. (She also noted that the old independent counsel law had been allowed to expire). Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who said Tuesday night that he was “disappointed” by the decision, stressed that his desire was for a select committee.
And then there was how the scandal and the likely contentious confirmation proceedings for Comey’s replacement stands to affect the GOP’s congressional agenda.
“Well, it doesn’t help,” Thune said.
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Sen. Tim Scott represents South Carolina.