WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump defied a storm of criticism Wednesday over his firing of FBI director James Comey, inviting Russia’s foreign minister to the White House even as Democrats demanded an independent probe of Moscow’s alleged meddling in the US elections.
Trump’s decision to terminate Comey on Tuesday effective immediately drew comparisons to the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon, and stunned Washington.
“James Comey will be replaced by someone who will do a far better job, bringing back the spirit and prestige of the FBI.” Trump tweeted.
“Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike. When things calm down, they will be thanking me!”
Under Comey, the FBI was investigating whether Trump campaign aides colluded with Russia in an attempt to sway the US election in the Republican’s favor.
Trump used a letter to Comey to try to distance himself from the ever-deepening scandal over Russia’s involvement in the election.
“I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation,” Trump wrote.
Trump said he was acting on recommendations of his attorney general and deputy attorney general, the latter of whom, Rod Rosenstein, accused Comey of “serious mistakes” in his handling of an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email.
The FBI director had antagonized all sides — first angering Republicans by closing the email probe against the Democratic candidate and then Democrats by reopening it days before the November presidential elections.
But Democrats — and some Republicans — saw the move to get rid of Comey as an assault on the FBI’s Russia probe and demanded that it be turned over to an independent special prosecutor or commission.
“This is nothing less than Nixonian,” charged Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who called Trump’s official justification for firing Comey “absurd.”
“That fig leaf explanation seeks to cover the undeniable truth: the president has removed the sitting FBI director in the midst of one of the most critical national security investigations in the history of our country — one that implicates senior officials in the Trump campaign and administration,” Leahy said.
Yet the president appeared to dig in his heels.
Hours after the firing, the White House announced that Trump would be meeting Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the White House.
“Just as we do, the Americans need this meeting,” Lavrov told Russian television.
Lavrov, who has not set foot in Washington since 2013, is the most senior Russian official to meet with Trump since he took office in January.
Despite Trump’s admiring comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin during the presidential campaign, relations between the two powers remain at a low point.
Trump’s decision to fire the FBI director is virtually unprecedented. Only one director has previously been fired in the bureau’s century-long history.
The top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, said Trump had made a “big mistake.”
Unless the administration appoints an independent special prosecutor to probe the Russian meddling, Schumer added, “every American will rightly suspect that the decision to fire director Comey was part of a coverup.”
Trump fired back on Twitter: “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer stated recently, ‘I do not have confidence in him (James Comey) any longer.’ Then acts so indignant. #draintheswamp.”
Republicans, many of whom have fallen into line behind Trump after initial reluctance, also sought to distance themselves from the president.
“I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of director Comey’s termination,” said Senator Richard Burr.
The White House said the search for a new FBI director was now underway.
FBI directors are appointed for a single 10-year term. The 56-year-old Comey, who is popular among rank-and-file agents, was appointed four years ago.
Comey played an outsized — and controversial — role on the American political stage over the past year, lobbing one bombshell after another that rankled both parties in Washington.
Clinton blamed Comey for her loss to Trump, arguing that reopening the email investigation just before the election had scared off voters, stopping her momentum.
Comey told lawmakers last week he felt “mildly nauseous” at the thought that he had swayed the election — but could not have acted any other way.
When Trump initially decided to keep Comey — a Barack Obama appointee — in his job, it raised eyebrows from critics who saw it as a tacit reward for his role in damaging Clinton’s chances.
But within months, the FBI chief was back in the national spotlight — this time taking aim at Trump.
During testimony to Congress last month, Comey overtly challenged the president, flatly rejecting his explosive claim that he was wiretapped by his predecessor.
And despite Trump’s dismissal of suggestions his team colluded with Moscow as “fake news,” it had become increasingly clear that Comey had set his sights on the issue of Russia’s election meddling, which has stalked Trump’s presidency from the start.