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Senators left with more questions than answers after Trump fires Comey

FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 3, 2017, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing: "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation." (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Donald Trump announced his decision to fire Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey on Tuesday evening on the basis of restoring "public trust and confidence" in the Bureau, but on Capitol Hill, senators on the left and right were left with more questions than answers about the timing, motivation and circumstances surrounding the decision.

President Trump took an unprecedented action on Tuesday, becoming the first president to dismiss an FBI director in the middle of a counterintelligence investigation into his own campaign and its possible dealings with the Russian government. In his letter to Comey, Trump said that he based his decision on recommendations from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, both of whom expressed a loss of confidence in the director who had stepped into an increasingly political role since July 2016.

As reactions to Comey's dismissal began pouring in, Trump took to Twitter to address what he clearly found to be a hypocritical response from Democrats. They were outraged when Comey announced the reopening of the Clinton email investigation 11 days before the presidential election, Trump tweeted, but "now they play so sad."

Only a few months ago, lawmakers on the left were talking about how they had lost confidence in Comey, some even suggested the director should find a different job. Trump attacked these Democrats over Twitter on Wednesday afternoon, calling them "Phony hypocrites!" who now "PRETEND to be aggrieved."

Earlier in the day, Trump confidently tweeted that "when things calm down" those who were questioning his decision would be thanking him. "Comey lost the confidence of almost everything in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike," the president wrote.

For some lawmakers, Trump's statement was right on.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) argued that Comey's dismissal "shouldn't surprise anyone."

"I don't think a lot of people had a lot of confidence in him," he said, because the FBI director was pushing a political agenda. "He was on both sides of the fence all along. Democrat one day, Republican the next."

The director's most fatal flaw, was that he "got in politics ... He should have stayed out of it," Shelby stated.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) agreed that Comey waded too deep into the political process, noting that the director's statements on numerous occasions "have not been ... worthy of the office that he holds."

Ultimately, the White House "made the right decision" in letting Comey go, Inhofe said, adding that the decision was "perhaps even overdue."

Other Republicans were not seeing eye to eye with the president and were expressing confidence in Comey even after his removal.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) praised Comey saying, "I never had any complaint about his work ....in light of various unique circumstances." At the same time, the senator acknowledged that the president must have confidence in his FBI director.

Sen. John McCain, who has often been a thorn in the side of the Trump administration, disagreed with the president's decision, telling reporters, "I believe Mr. Comey is a good man and I think he did his job well, and I don't think he deserved to be fired."

For nearly a year, Comey has been a whipping boy for both Republicans and Democrats.

Contrary to the Bureau's norms, Comey publicly addressed ongoing investigations, from the Clinton email investigation to the Russia probe. He also took the extraordinary step as an investigator in recommending no criminal charges against Hillary Clinton during a controversial July 5, 2016 press conference, an act that upset many Republicans, including then-candidate Donald Trump.

Comey made enemies on the other side of the aisle as well with his October 28, 2016 announcement that the FBI was reopening the Clinton email investigation, a move that Hillary Clinton still believes cost her the election.

Sen Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) acknowledged that he has had "very substantial differences" with Comey on a host of policy issues in the past, but argued that the timing of his dismissal was "absolutely outrageous."

The incident has raised serious questions for the senator, who is calling on the Intelligence Committee to schedule Comey to testify "as soon as possible" in an open, public hearing about the status of the Russia investigation at the time of his firing. It is yet to be seen whether the Republican chair of the Committee, Sen. Richard Burr, will agree to schedule the public hearing.

Wyden is also digging into the role of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from all matters related to the Russia investigation back on March 4, yet, was reportedly one of the officials recommended President Trump fire Comey. This apparent disregard by Sessions for his prior recusal, "raises serious questions about his fitness for office," Wyden said.

According to reports, Comey could be on Capitol Hill next week to testify before a closed hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Acting Director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe will testify in an open Intelligence hearing on Thursday. Comey was originally scheduled to address the committee at that time.

Contrary to Trump's expectations, the Democrats who were strongly opposed to the way Comey handled the Clinton email scandal ahead of the election, were hardly celebrating the director's dismissal.

Asked what had changed from a few months ago, a number of Democrats responded that the Russia investigation, a source of continuous damage to the Trump White House, had shifted their views of the director.

"To have a president fire an FBI director in the middle of an investigation of his administration raises all sorts of questions. That's why we're calling for a special investigator into this situation with Russians," Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said when asked to explain why the Democrats' views of Comey had changed.

Prior to Comey's removal, there were reports of subpoenas being issued by the FBI against former Trump campaign associate and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, which may have indicated an acceleration of the Russia investigation.

Comey had also reportedly met with Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein last week to request additional resources for the Russia investigation, an investigation that the administration and Trump himself has repeatedly downplayed as "fake news" and "a total hoax."

After meeting with the Democratic caucus in the afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) took the floor and pointed to these circumstances, implying that the decision to fire Comey may have been tied to a cover-up of the Trump-Russia investigation.

"We require answers," Schumer said. Referring to the alleged meeting between Comey and Rosenstein, Schumer suggested "that might be the reason he was fired, because he was pursuing the investigation in an accelerated way that was very much needed."

Praise for Comey's aggressive handling of the Russia investigation also spilled over to top Republicans, like Sen. Burr who campaigned for Trump. In an initial statement on Tuesday, Burr argued that Comey's dismissal "further confuses an already difficult investigation" into Russian meddling in the U.S. elections. He then praised Comey for being forthcoming with information and lamented his dismissal as "a loss for the Bureau and the nation."

Throughout the course of the day, Democrats and Republicans both expressed concerns that the president's decision to fire Comey could have been politically motivated, raising more and more unanswered questions as the day progressed.

At this time, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is waiting to hear from the White House about next steps. So far he has not received a list of individuals the president is considering to fill the job at the head of the FBI.

Once a nominee is chosen, there can be no doubt that that individual will face a bruising confirmation hearing and could be held up by Democrats and used as political leverage to get an independent counsel appointed to direct the Russia investigation. In this environment, it is difficult to envision the process "restoring public confidence in the FBI," as the administration had hoped.



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