By JOE WILLIAMS and NIELS LESNIEWSKI, CQ Roll Call
The firing of FBI Director James B. Comey brought renewed calls from both House and Senate Democrats for a special prosecutor to investigate alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The announcement on Tuesday night came as a surprise to many lawmakers, but reaction was swift. Even some Republicans said the timing of the termination would raise questions.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer told reporters that President Donald Trump called personally to inform him of the decision to fire Comey, a move the New York Democrat called a “big mistake.”
Schumer said that the time has come for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint a special prosecutor in the Russia probe, a move that several other Democrats also called for.
“It is deeply troubling that the President has fired the FBI director during an active counterintelligence investigation into improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement. “The President’s actions today make it clear to me that a Special Counsel also must be appointed.”
Senate Judiciary Committee member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said on MSNBC that he will introduce legislation tomorrow that would establish an independent counsel who would oversee the Justice Department’s Russia investigation.
House Democrats reacted with equal severity.
“This is not what an innocent person would do; this is an abuse of power, and shows a consciousness of guilt,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said in a statement. “Nobody recommended by this administration can be trusted to oversee this investigation, and so the need for an independent bipartisan commission is now more urgent than ever.”
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn quickly refuted the need for a special prosecutor and called Rosenstein “competent to lead that effort.”
“I’m surprised but obviously [Comey’s] been the center of controversy both among Democrats and Republicans at different times and it sounds to me reading the president’s letter he lost confidence in him,” the Texas Republican told reporters.
Rosenstein took over the federal investigation after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself following a controversy involving undisclosed meetings between Sessions and the Russian ambassador.
Some GOP lawmakers received almost immediate criticism for their refusal to call for an independent investigator into the Russia probe.
A crowd in Midlothian, Virginia gave loud applause at a town hall being held by Rep. David Brat, when the congressman was asked if he would advocate a special prosecutor.
“We have oversight committees in the House, in the Senate,” the Virginia Republican said. “They’re working their course.”
The crowd booed.
Brat said he believes the oversight committees should continue working the investigation until there is evidence that suggests collusion between the Trump campaign or administration and Russia.
Other Republicans took a much harsher stance against the decision. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was “disappointed” and renewed his call for an investigation by a special congressional committee into Russian interference in the election.
“The president’s decision to remove the FBI Director only confirms the need and the urgency of such a committee,” he said in a statement.
Other GOP lawmakers, like Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the timing of Comey’s termination would raise questions.
“It is essential that ongoing investigations are fulsome and free of political interference until their completion,” he said in a statement.
The decision by Trump to fire Comey comes just one day after former acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed a Senate panel that she had given the White House notice earlier this year that former National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn had lied about his contacts with the Russian government and was possibly susceptible to blackmail.
Trump fired Yates earlier this year. Schumer on Tuesday pointed to an apparent pattern of firing of Justice Department officials, including Yates and the former U.S. attorney based in Manhattan.
“They fired Sally Yates. They fired Preet Bharara, and now they’ve fired Director Comey — the very man leading the investigation. This does not seem to be a coincidence,” Schumer said. “This investigation must be run as far away as possible from this White House and as far away as possible from anyone that President Trump has appointed.”
In a letter to Comey released by the White House on Tuesday, Sessions and Rosenstein attributed his termination to mistakes the now former FBI director made during the handling of a separate investigation into former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server while serving as Secretary of State.
Schumer called foul and said that he did not believe that was the real cause for Comey’s ouster.
“The overwhelming question is this: if the administration had those same questions — the events occurred months ago — then they should have fired Comey the day they came into office,” Schumer said. “So that does not seem to me to be a very logical or persuasive explanation.”
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.