As the White House sent shockwaves through Washington Tuesday, with the announcement that President Donald Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey, James Clapper – former Director of National Intelligence and The Cipher Brief network expert— said it was “a huge loss for the nation, the FBI, and the Intelligence Community.”
“I have great respect and admiration for him [Comey],” he added.
At the time of the firing, Comey was overseeing the agency’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and possible links to the Trump’s campaign.
In a letter to Comey released by the White House, Trump said: “It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission.”
He added in a statement that “The FBI is one of our Nation’s most cherished and respected institutions and today will mark a new beginning for our crown jewel of law enforcement,” adding that a search for a new permanent FBI Director will begin immediately.
The White House said that the move was due to Comey’s handling of a probe into an email scandal surrounding former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton last year. But The Cipher Brief network expert, and Former Director of the CIA and NSA, Michael Hayden said he was “puzzled” by that explanation.
“If that was really the cause, the time to release him would have been in January during the transition,” said Hayden.
Trump’s announcement followed a series of events involving Comey. In March, Comey told the House Intelligence Committee that the FBI was looking into whether Trump’s campaign had colluded with Moscow to influence the election. Then last week, Comey defended his decision to reopen the investigation into Clinton’s emails just before the elections. This week, before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee, he said it “makes me mildly nauseous” that the move might have affected the election.
The White House said the President acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and released the letters the two officials sent to the President.
But Democrats denounced Trump’s move, accusing the Administration of political motivations and some comparing it to the “Saturday Night Massacre” of 1973, in which President Richard Nixon fired an independent special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a televised statement that he told the President that he was “making a big mistake” and questioned whether the firing was “part of a cover up.”
He also called for the investigation to continue under “a fearless, independent special prosecutor.”
Clapper feared that the investigation “could atrophy” now, but The Cipher Brief expert Elaine Lammert, who was the former Deputy General Counsel with the FBI, said she was confident it will not impede the ongoing probe.
“The only thing I can say right now is the FBI is a strong institution based upon integrity and the rule of law,” she said. “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.”
But she added that she was “shocked at the news and digesting the impact and how it will be perceived by the country let alone world-wide.”
Clapper agreed saying, “I’m sure the Russians are happy as clams.”
“For the rest of the world, I think it will be very unsettling,” said Clapper.
“I suspect that most foreign countries are still trying to determine the outlines of the Trump foreign policy and what it means for them,” added The Cipher Brief expert John Sipher and former senior member of the CIA’s Intelligence Service. “This is just another mystifying move.”
Comey is only the second FBI director in history to be fired. In 1993, President Bill Clinton ousted the then- FBI Director William Sessions after he refused to voluntarily step down amid ethical concerns.
Leone Lakhani is an executive reporter and producer at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @LeoneLakhani.