WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/CBS News) — President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey Tuesday afternoon, relieving him of all duties effective immediately.
As CBS2’s Dick Brennan reported, Comey’s dismissal came after he apparently misspoke during testimony about Clinton’s emails last week.
“This man is the President of the United States. He acted decisively today,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said of Trump. “He has lost confidence in the FBI director.”
The White House said in a statement that Comey was terminated and removed from office based on “the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”
“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,” President Trump said in a statement.
Trump’s letter directly to Comey was also released Tuesday afternoon. Trump said in the letter that he had agreed with Sessions and Rosenstein’s recommendations and “you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.”
“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” Trump wrote in the letter. “It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission.”
In a letter to Trump issued a short time earlier, Sessions wrote, “I have concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI.”
“It is essential that the Department of Justice clearly reaffirm its commitment to longstanding principles that ensure the integrity and fairness of federal investigations and prosecutions,” Sessions wrote. “The Director of the FBI must be someone who follows faithfully the rules and principles of the Department of Justice and who sets the right example for our law enforcement officials and others in the Department.”
Another memorandum issued by Rosenstein was more specific, taking issue with Comey’s handling of the the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server last summer.
Comey came under bipartisan fire for his handling of the Clinton email investigation – harshly criticizing her at a July news conference for being “careless” but saying “no indictment,” and then surprising her with a letter reigniting the controversy.
“I cannot defend the Director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the Director made serious mistakes’ it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives,” Rosenstein wrote.
Rosenstein’s letter went on: “The Director was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution. It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement. At most, the Director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors.”
Rosenstein further claimed Comey “ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation. Derogatory information sometimes is disclosed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it gratuitously. The Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial. It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”
As CBS2’s Tony Aiello reported, the memo recommending Comey’s firing quoted several prominent Democratic critics, including former Attorney General Eric Holder — who said Comey “negatively affected public trust in both the Justice Department and the FBI.”
In fact, both parties have alternately praised and pilloried Comey in recent months. When his October letter to Congress reignited the Clinton email scandal, candidate Trump said, “It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made!”
Trump’s longtime body man, retired NYPD Officer Keith Schiller, dropped off the letters notifying Comey of his firing by hand this afternoon at the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., a White House official confirmed to CBS News.
A U.S. official also confirmed that Comey was in the Los Angeles FBI complex when he was fired, as he was scheduled to speak tonight at a recruiting event for the FBI.
Three hours after being fired, Comey shook hands with some California police officers, and boarded an FBI jet to return to D.C. The termination letter was waiting for him at the FBI headquarters.
The firing of the FBI director is an unusual move that has only happened once before. In 1993, President Bill Clinton fired then-FBI Director William S. Sessions on a corruption charge, CBS News’ Scott Pelley reported.
FBI directors are appointed to 10-year terms so as to insulate them from politics. Comey, appointed by President Barack Obama, has only served about three of the 10 years to which he was appointed.
Trump does have the power to fire the FBI director, but only for just cause.
CBS News White House Correspondent Major Garrett reported the first inkling that Comey’s tenure as FBI director was in some degree of jeopardy came at the White House press briefing Tuesday, when Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked if Trump still had full confidence in the FBI director.
Spicer deferred on the question. He was reminded that he weeks earlier, he said Comey did have Trump’s full confidence – but he did not use those words on Tuesday.
The FBI has also been conducting a counterintelligence investigation related to questions raised by possible Russian activity with those in the Trump administration. The investigation has yet to reach any conclusions about whether that collusion did or did not exist.
CBS News’ Nancy Cordes reported from Capitol Hill that U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) released a statement indicating that he may have gotten a heads up that the firing was about to happen.
He said: “I know this was a difficult decision for all concerned. I appreciate Director Comey’s service to our nation in a variety of roles, but given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well.”
CBS News Senior Investigator Pat Milton reported she talked to more than a half dozen FBI agents in various field offices around the country – including the New York FBI office.
Each agent expressed shock at the news of director Comey’s firing, Milton reported. All spoke on condition of anonymity.
“I think he got rid of him because of the Russian investigation. They are trying to circle the wagons,” one agent said. “He wants his own man on there.”
Another veteran agent said: “Everyone is stunned. Talk about shock waves through the bureau. He is such a good man and a great leader. He didn’t deserve this.”
Yet another said: “You need cause to remove an FBI Director. He is apparently using his mishandling of the email investigation. He misspoke after an exhaustive four hours of testimony. That was the straw. Trump says he can’t be trusted.”
Meanwhile, a recently-retired senior FBI official and close friend of Comey said, “You can bet the Russia investigation is going nowhere now.”
The official also anticipated a “mass exodus out of the bureau,” and said Trump would pick someone loyal to him but “it will be one hell of a confirmation battle.”
The retired official called Comey’s dismissal “either a ballsy or completely idiotic move. Obama was so afraid of a terror attack on his watch that he extended (former FBI Director Robert) Mueller. An attack now would deal a death blow to Trump. I can’t see this working for him. You don’t have a strong #2 guy in (FBI Deputy Director Andrew) McCabe. Finding someone both sides will agree on as a replacement will be very tough.”
He said further: “I do not buy the Rosenstein letter. Trump said get rid of him. What Comey did on HRC was unprecedented but doesn’t rise to ‘cause’ for firing.”
“Earlier this afternoon, President Trump called me and informed me he was firing Director Comey. I told the president, ‘Mr. President, with all due respect, you are making a big mistake,’” Schumer said. “The first question the administration has to answer is why now? If Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein does not appoint an independent special prosecutor, every American will rightly suspect that the decision to fire Director Comey was part of a cover-up.”
Schumer said Comey’s dismissal will leave faith in the American criminal justice system “badly shattered,” particularly amid the Russian collusion probe.
“This is part of a deeply troubling pattern from the Trump administration. They fired Sally Yates. They fired Preet Bharara. And now they’ve fired Director Comey, the very man leading the investigation,” Schumer said. “This does not seem to be a coincidence.”
Trump fired back at Schumer, pointing out that in a Nov. 2, 2017 Bloomberg News interview, Schumer said he did “not have confidence in (Comey) any longer” following the October reopening of the Clinton email probe.
Meanwhile, multiple other lawmakers said a special prosecutor is now needed to investigate allegations of Russian collusion in the 2016 election.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) said: “This is Nixonian. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein must immediately appoint a special counsel to continue the Trump/Russia investigation.”
Added Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) “The need for a special prosecutor is now crystal clear. President Trump has catastrophically compromised the FBI’s ongoing investigation of his own White House’s ties to Russia. Not since Watergate have our legal systems been so threatened, and our faith in the independence and integrity of those systems so shaken. The only way to restore faith in a non-political, non-partisan FBI is to appoint an independent special prosecutor.”
Blumenthal called for a special prosecutor “who can conduct an investigation objectively, aggressively, impartially and who can help restore faith and trust in the FBI itself.”
Disappointment was also seen in Trump’s own party.
“While the President has the legal authority to remove the Director of the FBI, I am disappointed in the President’s decision to remove James Comey from office. James Comey is a man of honor and integrity, and he has led the FBI well in extraordinary circumstances,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) “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.”
But Senate Judiciary Commission Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said Comey had broken trust in the FBI.
“The handling of the Clinton email investigation is a clear example of how Comey’s decisions have called into question the trust and political independence of the FBI. In my efforts to get answers, the FBI, under Comey’s leadership, has been slow or failed to provide information that Comey himself pledged to provide,” Grassley said in a statement. “The FBI Director serves at the pleasure of the president. Under these circumstances, President Trump accepted the recommendation of the Justice Department that the Director lacked the confidence needed to carry out his important duties.”
On Tuesday evening, CBS News justice correspondent Jeff Pegues and John Dickerson, CBS News chief Washington correspondent and moderator of “Face the Nation,” analyzed the timing of Trump’s decision to fire Comey.
Pegues says the probe into Russian meddling in the election is still “midstream.”
“That’s why this move is stunning, and there’s really no other way to describe it. It’s the timing that is important here. This is an investigation that is being conducted by the FBI’s counterintelligence unit, it is very secretive and confined to that division of the FBI. To make this change in midstream raises questions about the direction of the investigation and who will come next to lead it,” Pegues said.
Before Comey was named FBI director by President Obama in 2013, he served as deputy attorney general, the No. 2 position in the Justice Department. He was appointed to that role by President George W. Bush.
At this early point, Pegues says the list for Comey’s replacement is “pretty short.”
“There’s one name on that list and its the deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe. He is a Duke graduate, also well respected in the law enforcement community, but his name also surfaced back over the summer in connection with the Clinton email server investigation because his wife had accepted donations during her campaign in Virginia from a Democratic operative. There are questions that some members might raise about McCabe, but he is well-respected in law enforcement circles,” Pegues said.
The political climate surrounding the decision is undeniable, Dickerson added.
“There was already a considerable amount of back and forth and political blood in the water on the Russia question this week alone, and now you have a situation where, if you read the letter explaining why Comey was let go, its thick with criticism of his handling of Hillary Clinton’s email situation, that was something obviously deeply political,” Dickerson said.
“Now, this week, he’s released the FBI is investigation ties between Russian meddling in the election and the Trump campaign, so the political ramifications here will be ongoing and constant. Whoever is going to handle this investigation next, will have to handle this supercharged atmosphere.”
Last week, testifying before a Senate panel, Comey spoke for the first time about his decision to go public 11 days before the 2016 presidential election about the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s emails.
“Look, this was terrible, it makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election, but honestly it wouldn’t change the decision,” Comey said.
“Somehow, her emails are being forwarded to Anthony Weiner including classified information by her assistant Huma Abedin and so they found thousands of new emails,” Comey said.
Now, the FBI is acknowledging some inaccuracies in Comey’s testimony, saying he misspoke about the number of emails, CBS News’ Kenneth Craig reported.
Comey did tell lawmakers in last week’s hearing that the bureau could not prove criminal intent and did not recommend charges against Abedin, Weiner, or Clinton.
Clinton has pointed to the email episode as one of the reasons she lost the election.
After Comey’s disclosure in October, Abedin’s lawyer said in a statement that Abedin had no idea how the emails got onto the shared laptop. Some officials say it may have been from using the machine to back-up her Blackberry.
Comey has deep ties to New York and New Jersey. He was born in Yonkers, raised in Bergen County. He also served as U.S. Attorney in Manhattan.