WASHINGTON — As calls for an independent prosecutor intensify on both sides of the aisle, President Trump and his aides argued Wednesday that the firing of FBI Director James Comey was a long time coming – and had nothing to do with the agency's ongoing investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
President Trump spent months considering whether to fire FBI Director James Comey, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said Wednesday.
Trump met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Monday and asked them to put their recommendations about Comey's leadership in writing, Sanders said.
"The president had lost confidence in Comey since the day he was elected," Sanders said, but did not make a final decision until shortly before it became public on Tuesday.
As Trump himself told reporters about his reasons for firing Comey: "Very simply, he was not doing a good job."
Yet Trump has had kind public words for Comey in recent months. As recently as last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump still had confidence in Comey.
But the White House is maintaining FBI director's overall record subjected him to dismissal, pointing to the notice from Sessions and Rosenstein that Comey had lost his effectiveness as the bureau's leader — in part because of his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
Comey announced just 11 days before the November presidential election that he was reopening the probe into Clinton's use of a private email server during her time as secretary of State. As Sanders noted, many Democrats blamed for her loss to Trump in the November election.
Trump's first in-person remarks about Tuesday's abrupt dismissal came after an Oval Office sit-down with Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – which only sharpened the debate over the tie between Comey's firing and Russia investigation.
Adding fuel to the fire, Comey's firing apparently came just days after he requested more funds for the Russia investigation.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee which oversees the Justice Department and FBI, said he learned Wednesday that "there was a request for additional resources for the investigation, and that a few days afterwards he (Comey) was sacked.”
Durbin said he did not know the details of the request, and did not have evidence that it was related to Comey’s firing. But he did offer a general takeaway: "I think the Comey operation was breathing down the neck of the Trump campaign, and their operatives, and this was an effort to slow down the investigation.”
While Durbin cited only a “reliable source" for his information, a Justice Department spokeswoman disputed the news reports. Comey made no request for additional funding or personnel in meetings with Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, said Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores. "No resources—personnel, money or otherwise,’’ she said. “That is false.’’
Yet the news developments fired up Democrats, who are already saying Trump is trying to short-circuit the Russia investigation, and have united in their calls for the appointment of a special prosecutor.
As many Democrats described the Comey dismissal as "Nixonian," in reference to President Richard Nixon's firing of the Watergate special prosecutor in 1973, there could be some Republican support for an independent investigation. "It is now harder to resist calls for an independent investigation," said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "It's pretty tough to fire the guy who's investigating your campaign."
At the White House, Sanders denied suggestions that Trump is looking to shut down the Russia probe.
"Any investigation that was happening on Monday is still happening today," Sanders said. "That hasn't changed."
She also said "there is no evidence of collusion" between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
Disputing Trump's reasoning on the timing, Democrats insisted that Trump could have fired Comey over his handling of the Clinton investigation anytime during the past four months he's been in office. Instead, they said, the president waited until the various Russia investigations heated up. "He feels the noose tightening," said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee, also speaking on Morning Joe.
Kaine noted that, in Trump's termination letter to Comey, the president thanked the FBI director for "you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation." As Kaine put it: "That shows a deeply insecure president."
Other Republicans joined in the criticism of the timing of Trump's stunning move.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., heading up one of the investigations as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he is "troubled by the timing and reasoning" of Comey's firing. He added that it "further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee."
Trump, of course, doesn't see it that way. During a morning tweet storm, Trump said that "Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike. When things calm down, they will be thanking me!"
And earlier in the day, Trump tweeted: "The Democrats have said some of the worst things about James Comey, including the fact that he should be fired, but now they play so sad!"
The president said he will hire someone "who will do a far better job" in restoring the FBI's prestige.
The new director will inherit an ongoing investigation into whether there was any collusion between associates of the Trump campaign and Russian who sought to influence last year's election by hacking Democrats close to Clinton and releasing the stolen information to websites such as WikiLeaks.
The investigation focuses on whether there are any Russian links to Trump associates Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign manager; Carter Page, a member of a Trump foreign policy advisory board; and Roger Stone, a long-time friend and political adviser to Trump.
Manafort, Page, and Stone have all denied collusion with Russia during the 2016 election.
Trump's decision to fire Comey comes amid a flood of news about the Russia investigation. On Monday, Sally Yates, the acting attorney general Trump fired earlier in his term, told a Senate panel that she warned the White House that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had lied about contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and was therefore vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Trump later fired Flynn.
White House officials downplayed the timing of all these developments, however, insisting that the same Democrats condemning the decision have in the past called for Comey's removal over his handling of last year's Clinton email investigation.
In the report that Trump used to justify his decision, Rosenstein criticized Comey for holding a July 5 news conference to announce that charges would not be filed against Clinton, even as he criticized her over the handling of classified information. “We do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation," Rosenstein said. His letter recommending firing also specifically mentioned Comey's decision to announce new investigation in the Clinton investigation on October 28.
Trump, meanwhile, had praised Comey for re-opening the investigation in October – and has in the months since complimented the FBI director. Introducing Comey during a White House event in January, Trump said that "he's become more famous than me."