President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey Tuesday, the White House said, moving to oust the man leading an investigation into his campaign operatives’ ties to Russia.
Mr. Trump insisted he’s not part of the probe, but said he felt compelled to fire the director anyway.
“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” Mr. Trump said in a letter to Mr. Comey.
The president said a new director is needed at the Federal Bureau of Investigation who “restores public trust and confidence” in the agency.
He said he was following the advice of his attorney general and deputy attorney general. The White House said the search for a replacement will begin immediately.
Democrats said the firing raises troubling questions about the current investigation into Russia and demanded Mr. Trump take steps to make sure the probe continues without interference. The firing is likely to intensify calls for a special prosecutor to take over.
“There can be no question that a fully independent special counsel must be appointed to lead this investigation. At this point, no one in Trump’s chain of command can be trusted to carry out an impartial investigation,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat.
Mr. Wyden said he’s been a longtime critic of Mr. Comey, but called the firing “outrageous.” He said Congress needs to immediately call a hearing and have the former director testify about the status of the probe.
“This is Nixonian,” said Sen. Bob Casey, Pennsylvania Democrat.
He called for Mr. Rosenstein to immediately appoint a special counsel to investigate ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin’s meddling in the presidential race, which is a longstanding demand of Democrats.
“This investigation must be independent and thorough in order to uphold our nation’s system of justice,” said Mr. Casey.
Mr. Comey became a major figure in last year’s election, first pursuing an investigation into Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, then clearing her of criminal wrongdoing over the summer. He inserted himself into the final weeks by reopening — then quickly clearing — the investigation again.
More recently, he confirmed the FBI is investigating Trump campaign associates for possible illegal links to Russia.
Mr. Comey had served as deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush, then was appointed FBI director by President Obama. His term was slated to last through 2023.
He’s had an unusual relationship with Mr. Trump, blaming him during the campaign for letting Mrs. Clinton off lightly, then praising him in the days after the inauguration in January.
At a White House reception for law enforcement officials, the two men shook hands and the president joked that Mr. Comey had “become more famous than me.”
Mr. Comey at the time said Mr. Trump had asked him to stay on as director, and he agreed.
But the relationship between the White House and the FBI quickly became tense over the Russia allegations.
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus encountered FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe in a hallway of the West Wing on Feb. 15, when Mr. McCabe pulled Mr. Priebus aside to tell him that a New York Times article about contacts between Trump aides and Russians during the presidential campaign were “garbage.”
Mr. Priebus asked Mr. McCabe and Mr. Comey if the FBI would push back publicly against the news story, but the FBI declined, saying it couldn’t be involved in refereeing news articles.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer expressed frustration at the time over the FBI’s refusal to back up the White House, and for Democrats portraying Mr. Priebus as trying to exert pressure on the FBI.
“The chief of staff said, well, you’ve put us in a very difficult situation,” Mr. Spicer said at the time. “You’ve told us that a story that made some fairly significant accusations was not true. And now you want us to just sit out there.”
Hours before the president fired Mr. Comey, reporters asked Mr. Spicer if the president still had confidence in the FBI director. Mr. Spicer qualified his answer.
“I have no reason to believe — I haven’t asked him,” he said. “I have not asked the president since the last time we spoke about this. I don’t want to start speaking on behalf of the president without speaking to him first.”
In letters Tuesday both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Mr. Comey had lost their backing.
“I cannot defend the director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgement that he was mistaken,” Mr. Rosenstein wrote in a memo to Mr. Sessions. “Almost everyone agrees that the director made a serious mistake; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.”
Mr. Rosenstein said Mr. Comey was “wrong to usurp” former Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s authority when he took it upon himself to hold a press conference in July to announce that the FBI would not recommend criminal charges against Mrs. Clinton.
The FBI director testified before Congress last week that he took the unusual step because he believed that a June 2016 airport tarmac meeting between Ms. Lynch and Mrs. Clinton’s husband, former President Clinton, had undermined the Justice Department’s credibility to independently investigate the case.
“A number of things had gone on, which I can’t talk about yet, that made me worry that the department leadership could not credibly complete the investigation and decline prosecution without grievous damage to the American people’s confidence in the justice system,” Mr. Comey told senators.
Meanwhile, Mr. Sessions wrote in his own memo that “a fresh start” was needed in order for the DOJ to “reaffirm its commitment to longstanding principles that ensure the integrity and fairness of federal investigations and prosecutions.”
The White House provided reporters with a document pointing to Democrats’ own complaints with Mr. Comey.
Most recently, Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said he thought Mr. Comey treated Mrs. Clinton badly during the campaign by talking publicly about his investigation into her email account, but shielding from the public his investigation into Mr. Trump’s campaign associated.
In testimony last week Mr. Comey defended his handling of the situation, saying he faced only bad options and felt “mildly nauseous” over what he had to do, but “even in hindsight, and this has been one of the world’s most painful experiences, I would make the same decision.”
FBI Historians have been closely watching Mr. Comey’s interaction with the White House.
Pulitzer Prize–winning author of ‘Enemies: A History of the FBI’ Tim Weiner said the bureau has worked to check and confront the power of the president since its first director, J. Edgar Hoover, ran the agency.
“The FBI has gone after presidents and administrations before,” Mr. Weiner told The Washington Times last week after Mr. Comey testified twice before congress. “My view of him (Comey) is that he is a stand-up guy faced with a political and legal snake-pit that very few outsiders could possibly comprehend.”
Mr. Weiner added that there were major questions as to how the American justice system would ultimately handle the Russia investigation, which he characterized as a national security threat not seen since the start of the Cold War
“In a political landscape that is so littered with landmines — Comey can’t afford to take a false step,” he said.