Senators on Capitol Hill were still reeling Wednesday from President Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey Tuesday, and even some members of the president’s own party are concerned about the timing of his decision.
“The timing raises some questions because of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the election,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.
Hoeven noted that Trump was acting on the advice of the recently confirmed deputy attorney general, but he said the firing makes the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian activities even more vital.
Intelligence agencies believe Russian operatives hacked email accounts and leaked damaging information to influence the outcome of the election and harm Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, expects Comey’s dismissal to add fuel to the bipartisan Senate investigation. The now-former director has testified that the FBI is looking into contacts and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians.
“You just don’t fire the FBI director when the FBI director is investigating you,” Brown said. “It’s never been done like this.”
Trump claimed in his letter informing Comey he was being terminated that the FBI director has told him three times that he is not personally under investigation.
The deputy attorney general’s memo to the president released by the White House justified removing Comey based on his handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server last year, but Brown said the timing suggests the president is worried about the current probe of his Russia connections.
“If President Trump had fired Comey on January 20 or 21, that would be one thing, but as Comey has gotten closer and closer to beginning to unearth things, that’s when he fired him and that’s why this looks so bad,” he said.
However, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., accused Democrats of hypocrisy for flipping out over Trump firing Comey after they spent months criticizing the FBI director and saying they lost confidence in him over the same conduct that ostensibly led to his firing.
“I think the one thing that has been consensus on both sides of the aisle is it was time for Comey to go,” Paul said.
Democrats complain that Comey went too far in publicly disclosing details of the Clinton investigation, but many Republicans feel he did not go far enough and should have recommended prosecuting the former secretary of state.
“Almost every Democrat in the country thought Comey messed up the investigation, and almost every Republican did,” Paul said. “I don’t know how you lead an agency when it’s become that political.”
If it turns out that the White House directed the DOJ to find a reason to fire Comey rather than the desire to remove him originating with the deputy attorney general, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said it would look like a "Nixonian Hail Mary" intended to derail the Russia investigation.
“If that is the story, whether Comey was good or bad in the past is kind of irrelevant,” he said.
According to Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the president has been inconsistent in his assessment of Comey as well. If Trump was bothered by the FBI director revealing new information about the Clinton probe 10 days before the election--an act Clinton believes cost her the presidency-- he would not have praised Comey for doing it at the time.
“You would not have President Trump right after the election talking about how much Comey had done a good job in restoring and redeeming himself at the FBI," he said. "Those are President Trump’s words showing great faith in the FBI director right after the election.”
Van Hollen believes a special prosecutor should be appointed for the Russia investigation before the Senate gets to work on confirming Comey's replacement, and he alleged that the Trump administration's behavior creates an appearance of an attempt to obstruct justice.
“When you fire the person who’s leading the investigation, it obviously generates huge questions about what are they trying to hide,” he said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Comey’s treatment of Clinton was not “sufficient rationale” for removing him, and he argued the situation justifies the formation of a select committee to investigate the Russian activities.
“I think it renews the urgency that we need a select committee to investigate all aspects of the connections with Russia and all of the other factors that have led to what is a very serious scandal in the United States,” McCain said.
Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., applauded the president's "bold" action, though. He has great confidence in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the FBI directorship and recommended Comey's ouster.
“I think the process worked just the way it was supposed to,” he said.
White House aides and the president himself have defended his decision to fire Comey, and they insist there is no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Whether that proves to be the ultimate conclusion or not, Brown hopes to get the Russia issue resolved soon, a process that could be hindered by a change in leadership at the FBI.
“I want to get this done,” he said. “I want to get this Russia investigation over so we can do tax reform and do infrastructure and do the job creation that we’re elected to do.”