Comey Firing Came Amid Calls for Wider Russia Probe

Photo: FBI

President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey coincides with the ramping up of multiple investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion with Trump campaign associates.

On Tuesday, Senate investigators on the Senate Intelligence Committee asked the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) to look into any possible financial ties between Trump campaign advisors and Russia.

Also on Tuesday, CNN reported federal prosecutors issued grand jury subpoenas seeking the business records of associates of Michael Flynn, the former National Security Advisor who was fired by Trump. The move represents “the first sign of a significant escalation of activity in the FBI’s broader investigation begun last July into possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia,” CNN reported.

Just days ago, Comey asked the Justice Department for a “significant increase in money and personnel” for the FBI’s Russia investigation, according to the New York Times. Comey reportedly asked for these resources during a meeting with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote the Justice Department’s memo used in justifying Comey’s firing.

This begs the question, was Comey fired because he was getting closer to uncovering connections between team Trump and Russia?

“Let me be very clear that the President’s decision to accept the recommendation of the Deputy Attorney General and the Attorney General to remove Director Comey as head of the FBI was based solely and exclusively on his commitment to the best interest of the American people and to ensuring that the FBI has the trust and confidence of the people of this nation,” Vice President Mike Pence told reporters on Wednesday.

“The President over the last several months lost confidence in Director Comey. … Accordingly, the President accepted the recommendation of the Deputy Attorney General to remove James Comey from his position,” said Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders at a White House briefing on Wednesday.

Former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden told The Cipher Brief, “the [FBI] Director could determine how much energy, how many resources, how much personal attention the [Russia] investigation would get, and that could change with the new Director” – meaning a new FBI director could choose not to request more resources for the investigation, which could be preferable to a White House that has cause for concern.

But former FBI Deputy General Counsel Elaine Lammert said the Bureau will press on with its probe. “It will continue with the Russian investigation and any other investigations as it always has – thoroughly, within the law/policies/guidelines and in a non-political way.”  

“Look, the bottom line is any investigation that was happening on Monday is still happening today,” said Sanders, adding, “there is no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.”

Senators call for a special prosecutor

Comey’s firing has renewed calls from senators on both sides of the aisle for an independent investigation into the matter. “If there was ever a time when circumstances warranted a special prosecutor, it is right now,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain (R-AZ) said in a statement, “I have long called for a special congressional committee to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The president’s decision to remove the FBI Director only confirms the need and the urgency of such a committee.”

On the other hand, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) noted on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “It’s a counterintelligence investigation, not a criminal investigation… the day it becomes a criminal investigation, we’ll talk about a special prosecutor, but that’s not what they’re investigating.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) echoed Graham’s resistance to a special prosecutor, saying that it “could only serve to impede the current work being done to … discover what the Russians may have done [and] to see that it doesn’t occur again.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee is moving ahead with its probe. Although Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) is “troubled” by the President’s decision to fire Comey, he sees no need for a special prosecutor at this time. Burr told reporters on Wednesday, “This makes our task a little more difficult but it didn’t make it impossible, so we will continue.”

Other politicians are taking a harsher tone on the whole situation – going as far as to call Comey’s firing a “Nixonian act” that is “one of the most staggering, stunning acts of a president compromising an investigation since the Saturday Night Massacre involving Richard Nixon,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) announced plans “to work with Senator Blumenthal on legislation to ensure that a truly independent prosecutor can be appointed.”

Sanders, on the other hand, said there’s no need for a special prosecutor. “You’ve got a House committee, a Senate committee and the Department of Justice all working on this,” she said. “I don’t think that there’s a necessary need at this point to add that.”

Trump and Tillerson meet with Russian Foreign Minister

Back at the White House, President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held separate meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday.

This marks Trump’s highest-level, in-person contact with a sitting Russian official since becoming president. The meeting was closed to media. 

Later, in an undisclosed meeting with the former U.S. Secretary of State during the Nixon Administration, Henry Kissinger, Trump told reporters he had a “very, very good meeting” with Lavrov and both sides want to end “the horrible, horrible killing in Syria as soon as possible and everybody is working toward that end.” 

When asked about his dismissal of the FBI Director, Trump said Comey was fired because “he was not doing a good job.” The President also said the firing had no affect “at all” on his meeting with the Russians. Photos handed out by the Russian government show Trump also met with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak on Wednesday. Conversations between Kislyak and Flynn ultimately led to Flynn’s firing in February, because Flynn apparently lied to Vice President Pence about whether the two had discussed U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia.

As Tillerson and Lavrov posed for photographers before their meeting, Lavrov offered a sarcastic response to a question if Comey’s firing would cast a shadow over talks. Lavrov replied, “Was he fired? You are kidding. You are kidding.”

On the other side of the world, Russian President Vladimir Putin chimed in, telling a CBS reporter, “There will be no affect [on U.S.-Russia relations]. … we have nothing to do with that. President Trump is acting in accordance with his competence and in accordance with his law and constitution.”

Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.