The abrupt removal of James Comey as FBI director Tuesday marked the third time President Donald Trump has fired a high-profile official in his first three-plus months in office, following the ousters of his national security adviser and acting attorney general.
Here’s everything we know about Comey’s firing:
How it happened
Comey, three years into his 10-year term as FBI director, didn’t know he was fired until news of his removal appeared on TV. Multiple outlets reported that Comey was giving a speech at the FBI’s Los Angeles office when he found out that Trump had let him go Tuesday evening.
In fact, Comey thought it was, at first, a “fairly funny prank,” The New York Times reported.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, President Donald Trump’s trusted former security guard — now head of White House operations — Keith Schiller was sent to deliver a manila envelope containing official letter of termination to Comey’s office at FBI headquarters.
Trump had also alerted a few senators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, about the move. Several outlets reported that the president had fumed over the FBI’s continued investigation into contacts between his campaign officials and Russia.
Trump said in the letter that Comey is “not able to able to effectively lead the Bureau,” adding that someone new in the role would restore public trust in the FBI. The president’s letter was published in a press release from the White House that included recommendations for Comey’s ouster from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
Rosenstein’s letter provided the groundwork for Trump’s decision, citing support for Comey’s firing from other former justice department officials, though he didn’t go so far as to call for his removal. However, Buzzfeed reported that former Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer, who is cited in Rosenstein’s letter, called Comey’s firing a “sham.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday in a news briefing that the president had a conversation Monday with Sessions and Rosenstein over their concerns with Comey.
“The president asked that they put their concerns and recommendations in writing, which is the letter that you all had received,” she said.
Both Democrats and some Republicans questioned the timing of the decision, asking how this would affect the FBI investigation into alleged collusion between Russian officials and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Some also questioned Session’s role in firing the head of an investigation that he was supposed to be recused from overseeing.
Hours after the firing lit up cable news, Trump sent out a slew of tweets defending his decision. He said Comey had “lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike.”
“When things calm down, they will be thanking me!” he added.
News of Comey’s ouster sent shockwaves through he FBI, Politico reported. “I’m literally in tears right now,” one agent said.
On Wednesday morning, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told PBS NewsHour’s Lisa DesJardins that Comey had notified Congressional officials he wanted to expand the investigation into Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election in recent days.
The story from the administration has changed several times over the past 48 hours, drawing criticism from Democrats, Republicans and the media. (PBS NewsHour’s John Yang goes through the shifting narratives here).
On Friday, Trump responded to that criticism on Twitter, writing that as a very active president, “it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!”
He also tweeted Comey “better hopes” there were no tapes of their conversations leaked to the press.
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
On Friday, California Rep. Adam Schiff, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House committee leading the Russia investigation asked Trump to hand over any such tapes, suggesting that if recordings do exist, it was because Trump made them.
Mr. President, if there are "tapes" relevant to the Comey firing, it's because you made them and they should be provided to Congress. https://t.co/rztyxG6Ytt
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) May 12, 2017
In his Friday news briefing with reporters, Spicer declined to answer several questions about whether Trump was recording conversations.
Who runs the FBI now?
White House officials confirmed Tuesday that Andrew McCabe, the FBI’s deputy director under Comey, took over the bureau as acting director after his boss was fired. McCabe was sworn at 5:30 p.m. ET, according to CBS.
McCabe joined the FBI in 1996 and worked his way up from his first posting in the bureau’s New York field office. Comey tapped McCabe as the FBI’s No. 2 official in January of 2016.
By all accounts, McCabe is respected and well liked within the FBI. But he may not last long as acting director because of his own ties to the bureau’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
Last year, McCabe’s wife, Jill McCabe, received roughly $500,000 in campaign contributions from Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D-Va., — a longtime Clinton ally — toward her run for a state senate seat in Virginia.
As deputy FBI director at the time, McCabe came under fire for not recusing himself from the bureau’s Clinton investigation.
In January, the Department of Justice’s Inspector General Michael Horowitz launched a review of Comey’s handling of the FBI’s Clinton case. Horowitz said the review would include a look into whether McCabe should have recused himself from the investigation.
What happens to the ongoing investigations into Russia by the FBI and Congress?
Before his ouster, Comey led the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections and possible ties to Trump’s campaign. Similar investigations are ongoing in the House and Senate.
Democrats and some Republicans have worried about the integrity of the investigation after Comey’s dismissal; some lawmakers have raised flags about the involvement of Sessions — who had recused himself in March from any investigation involving Russia — in Comey’s firing.
They’ve called for a special independent prosecutor to instead lead the investigation — but the 1977 law that created the role of the “special prosecutor” expired in 1999, which means that option is effectively off the table unless Congress reauthorizes the law or passes a new one.
According to legal experts, the next best option for those seeking independent oversight is for the Department of Justice to appoint a “special counsel” — an investigator with less freedom than a “special prosecutor” and whose investigation could be curtailed or stopped altogether at any time by the Trump administration.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has so far denied requests for an independent investigator. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has asked Rosenstein and Sessions to brief senators on Comey’s firing next week.
In a testimony Thursday, acting FBI director Andrew McCabe assured senators that Comey’s firing would not affect the investigation, which he described as “highly significant.”
He also said he would not “tolerate” any interference from the White House.
“You cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing,” he said.
Meanwhile, other investigations appear to be moving forward. The Senate Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena Wednesday for documents from former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who refused a request for materials related to the Russia probe last month.
On Friday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and ranking member Feinstein requested Rosenstein and McCabe brief the full Senate Judiciary Committee on the Russia investigation. They asked for a hearing to be scheduled by 5 p.m. EST Friday.
What will Comey do next?
In the immediate aftermath of his firing, there were reports that now-former Director Comey would still appear at an FBI recruiting event scheduled Tuesday evening in Hollywood. Instead, he abruptly left town. The event went on without Comey, but with a powerpoint still listing him as keynote speaker, the LA Times reported.
What will Comey do next? He was scheduled to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday. Sen. Mark Warner, the panel’s top Democrat, told CNN he still wanted Comey to attend the hearing, even as a former FBI director. Instead, McCabe testified in his place.
Comey’s testimony may be in high demand going forward. Democratic Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden called for Comey to immediately testify in an open hearing about the status of the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. So far, no hearings have been scheduled.
Comey also declined to testify in a closed session before a Senate committee on Tuesday, Politico reported.
But don’t hold your breath for Comey to spill the beans on what’s going on inside the FBI, now that he’s a civilian. Much as former acting Attorney General Sally Yates was unable to speak publicly about classified information during her public appearance before the Senate last week, Comey will only be able share his deepest secrets in closed hearings.
What does the distant future hold for Comey? Two public servants who came before him might offer a guide. William Sessions, who is the only other FBI director fired by a president, lives in Texas and has had a prominent legal career, despite the scandal that cost him his government job. In 2010, Sessions contributed to a task force reviewing the legality of detaining terrorism suspects.
Special prosecutor Archibald Cox, the victim of a pink slip issued by President Richard Nixon at the end of the Watergate scandal, has been compared to Comey since both men were running active investigations of their respective presidents at the moment they were fired. Cox was widely respected before his firing, and Nixon’s rebuke further galvanized public opinion of his stature. In his later years, Cox argued two cases before the Supreme Court and led Common Cause, a liberal nonprofit focused on improving government ethics.
How similar is this to what Nixon did?
It depends on who you ask.
Comey’s firing drew some almost immediate comparisons to the “Saturday Night Massacre,” when Nixon fired Cox (the independent special prosecutor) in the midst of the Watergate scandal. The firing prompted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus,
On Tuesday, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., called Trump’s dismissal of Comey, in the midst of the Russia investigations, “Nixonian.”
And Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement that while he “had deep reservations with the way Director Comey handled the investigation into the Clinton emails which I made clear at the time and since, to take this action without addressing the profound conflict of interest of the President and Attorney General harkens back to a similarly tainted decision by President Nixon.”
But John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel, told the NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff on Tuesday that “it doesn’t have any of that kind of feel.”
“Archibald Cox was defying the president and taking his own course of action and … making a decision that was very much placing Nixon in jeopardy. So, I don’t think we have any similarities here,” he said.
In an abrupt and stunning development, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey Tuesday, after receiving recommendations from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Judy Woodruff explores what we know so far with John Yang and gets reaction from John Dean, former White House counsel for President Nixon.
Less than a month after Nixon’s decision to fire Cox, a district judge said his dismissal was illegal. Though some have questioned Trump’s removal of Comey, it’s not yet clear what consequences, if any, the action will have.
How often have FBI directors been fired?
Before now, just once.
Twenty-four years ago, then-President Bill Clinton dismissed FBI Director William Sessions after ethical concerns over his use of agency perks.
Sessions, a Reagan appointee, served from 1987 to 1993; Clinton removed him from office in the wake of an investigation into Sessions’ use of government resources, after he refused to resign on his own.
Since the FBI became an independent arm of the DOJ in 1935, there have been just seven full-time directors, including Comey. Firing has “been the exception to the rule,” former Nixon counsel John Dean told the NewsHour on Tuesday.
In 1976, in response to J. Edgar Hoover’s 36-year term, lawmakers made the position a 10-year appointment requiring Senate approval. The idea was to give the bureau a stronger sense of independence, with a leader that could carry over from one president to the next.
It’s preserving that independence that most worries critics who have accused Trump, in Comey’s firing, of meddling in an ongoing investigation that in part examines his own campaign.