In a dramatic announcement, the White House said on Tuesday that President Donald Trump has fired FBI Director James Comey, who had been leading his agency's investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and possible collusion with Trump's campaign.
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Trump said the move, which shocked Washington, resulted from Comey's handling of an election-year email scandal last year involving then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Democrats immediately accused Trump of acting out of political motives.
A statement released by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer explained that "Today, President Donald J. Trump informed FBI Director James Comey that he has been terminated and removed from office. President Trump acted 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,” said President Trump.
"A search for a new permanent FBI Director will begin immediately," the statement said. Andrew McCabe, Comey's deputy, assumed the position of acting FBI director.
>> READ IN FULL: Trump's letter to Comey informing him of his termination as FBI chief >>
Comey had been leading an FBI investigation into allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion with Trump's campaign. His dismissal will likely fuel concerns about the integrity of the probe and renew calls for an independent investigation.
The FBI director had been embroiled in a controversy surrounding his probe into whether Clinton's use of a private email server while U.S. secretary of state during President Barack Obama's first term compromised national security.
"It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission," Trump said in a letter to Comey released by the White House.
Trump told Comey in the letter he accepted the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he could no longer provide effective leadership. Comey's term was to run through September 2023.
According to the New York Times, Comey learned that he had been fired while addressing FBI employees in Los Angeles. While he was speaking, the New York Times reported, TV screens behind him started flashing the news.
Democrats denounced Trump's move, which some compared to the "Saturday Night Massacre" of 1973, in which President Richard Nixon fired an independent special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.
Senator Chuck Schumer went to the Senate floor and criticized Trump's decision, questioning its motives. "Were the investigation getting too close to home for the president?" Schumer asked rhetorically, referring to the probes into alleged ties between the Trump election campaign and Russia.
Schumer said that Trump informed him ahead of his decision, and that he replied it was "a big mistake" on the President's behalf.
Trump hasn't commented publicly on Comey's firing, except by attacking Schumer. "Cryin' Chuck Schumer stated recently, "I do not have confidence in him (James Comey) any longer." Then acts so indignant. #draintheswamp," Trump tweeted Tuesday night.
"Today's action by President Trump completely obliterates any semblance of an independent investigation into Russian efforts to influence our election, and places our nation on the verge of a constitutional crisis," said Representative John Conyers, senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Conyers and other Democrats renewed their calls for an independent commission or a special prosecutor to investigate Russian influence in the 2016 election.
Comey had said in July the Clinton email case should be closed without prosecution, but then declared - 11 days before the Nov. 8 election in which Clinton was the Democratic nominee - that he had reopened the investigation because of a discovery of a new trove of Clinton-related emails.
Clinton and other Democrats say they believe Comey's decision help cost her the election.
The White House released a memo by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that provided the administration's justification for firing Comey.
"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," Rosenstein wrote.
Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee last Wednesday it made him "mildly nauseous" to think his announcement of the reopening of an investigation into Clinton's emails affected the 2016 presidential election, but he had no regrets and would make the same decision again.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin also went to the Senate floor on Tuesday to urge the White House to clarify whether the FBI investigation of Russian interference in the presidential campaign would continue now that Comey has been fired.
"Any attempt to stop or undermine this FBI investigation would raise grave constitutional issues," Durbin said. "We await clarification by the White House as soon as possible as to whether this investigation will continue."
Trump, in his letter to Comey, said: "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."
There are several Russia probes ongoing in Congress. The U.S House of Representatives' main investigation has been stymied in recent weeks by partisan squabbles, while the Senate's parallel probe has been slow-moving and equipped with a much smaller staff than previous high-profile congressional investigations.