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Trump defends firing of FBI chief; Democrats demand independent Russia probe

By Reuters - May 10,2017 - Last updated at May 10,2017

This combination of photos shows FBI Director James Comey on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 14, 2016 and US President Donald Trump at the White House on March 1, 2017 (Reuters photo)

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump defended his firing of FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday as Democrats intensified accusations that the ouster was intended to undermine an agency probe into his presidential campaign's possible collusion with Russia to sway the 2016 election.

The Republican president's abrupt move on Tuesday stunned Washington and was swiftly condemned by Democrats and by some in his own party. Senior Democrats pressed for an independent investigation into the Russia issue.

In the White House as he met with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office, Trump was asked by reporters why he fired Comey, responding, "He wasn't doing a good job, very simply."

In a flurry of Twitter posts earlier, Trump offered a further explanation and lambasted his critics.

"Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike. When things calm down, they will be thanking me," he said. "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 Trump administration said on Tuesday Comey's firing was over his handling of an election-year FBI probe into then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server during her time as secretary of state.

Many Democrats have criticised Comey's management of that investigation, but they sharply questioned the timing of his dismissal, given that Trump could have acted soon after taking office on January 20 and that he has repeatedly criticised the FBI and congressional probes into alleged Russian meddling in the presidential election.

Comey had asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last week for a significant boost in resources for the agency's probe, and later briefed US lawmakers on the request, The New York Times reported on Wednesday, citing three unnamed officials. The Washington Post also reported Comey's request.

Republicans control both chambers of Congress, and a growing number of Republicans also expressed doubts over Trump's move. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, stood by Trump, accusing Democrats of "complaining about the removal of an FBI director who they themselves repeatedly and sharply criticised".

He also dismissed Democratic calls for the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Moscow's role in the election and possible ties between Trump associates and Russia. Speaking on the Senate floor, McConnell said a new investigation would "only serve to impede" existing probes such as one under way in the Senate intelligence committee.

The Senate's minority leader, Democrat Chuck Schumer, said Rosenstein should appoint a special prosecutor, and he also called on McConnell to hold closed and potentially classified briefings with all US senators to question Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein.

Schumer said such briefings should address why Sessions, who previously recused himself from involvement in the Russia investigation after misstating his own contacts in 2016 with Russia's ambassador to Washington, was able to influence the firing of the man conducting the FBI's Russia investigation.

"We know Director Comey was leading an investigation in [to] whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, a serious offense. Were those investigations getting too close to home for the president?" Schumer said.

US 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 e-mails and leaking them, with the aim of helping Trump.

Russia has repeatedly denied any such meddling. The Trump administration denies allegations of collusion with Russia.

Vice President Mike Pence said Comey's firing was unrelated to the Russia probe. Trump was in the process of evaluating candidates to take over the FBI, Pence told reporters after meetings with lawmakers in the US Capitol.

"President Trump made the right decision at the right time," Pence said.

Trump's nominee as the new director would need to win Senate confirmation. Trump's possible choices to head the FBI on an interim basis, according to a White House official, include: acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe; Assistant Director Paul Abbate; Chicago FBI Agent Michael Anderson; and Richmond, Virginia Agent Adam Lee.

US stocks were little changed and Treasury benchmark yields retreated on Wednesday as Comey's firing spurred some concern among investors that the fallout could hinder the president's economic agenda. 

 

'Constitutional crisis'

 

Some Democrats compared Trump's move to the "Saturday Night Massacre" of 1973, in which President Richard Nixon ordered the firing of an independent special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal that eventually led Nixon to resign.

"What we have now is really a looming constitutional crisis that is deadly serious," Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told CNN.

Trump hit back at Blumenthal in his Twitter messages, referring to him as "Richie", calling his comments on the Comey firing "a joke" and alluding to a years-old controversy over the senator's military service during the Vietnam War era.

The Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee said Comey's ouster could temporarily delay the panel's investigation into the alleged Russian meddling.

Senator Richard Burr said he hoped to get the same level of cooperation from acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, but "an interruption in any of the access we have to documents and personnel would be harmful to our investigation".

Among other Republicans expressing doubts about Comey's dismissal, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, said, "The timing, obviously, it raises questions. I conveyed directly to the White House the need late last night to make sure they nominate someone [to replace Comey] that is absolutely beyond reproach." 

Republican Senator John McCain said on CNN he has not seen a "good explanation" for the firing.

 

Lavrov visit

 

As the controversy swirled, Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office on Wednesday. Afterward, Trump said the two had "a very, very good meeting" and discussed the need to stop the killing in Syria's lengthy civil war. 

Their meeting was the highest-level public contact between Trump and Putin's government since Trump took office on January 20.

Asked earlier by reporters at the US State Department before a meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson if Comey's firing would cast a shadow over the talks, Lavrov responded in a sarcastic tone: "Was he fired? You're kidding. You're kidding." 

The Kremlin said it hoped Comey's firing would not affect Moscow's ties with Washington, saying it believed his dismissal had nothing to do with Russia.

 

Legal experts said Trump's dismissal of Comey does not mean the FBI's Russia investigation will be disrupted or end, since career FBI staffers can continue the probe even as the search for a new director begins.

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