President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was overseeing an investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Russia, has caused a rift among congressional Republicans.
Republicans in Congress are facing a moment: They must either defend Trump’s decision to fire the man leading the investigation into his campaign, or side with those who have been calling for more open inquiries into the presidential campaign’s connections to Russia. Most in Republican leadership are keeping to the White House’s line.
But a handful of Republicans are expressing skepticism at Trump’s move — and some reactions have carried more consequence than the usual toothless slap on the wrist. Republicans generally haven’t joined Democrats in calling for a special prosecutor, but they still raised concerns about the president’s decisions and timing. And a few have gone far enough to say they will be looking for more answers, possibly through an independent commission to review Russia’s influence in the elections.
“Regardless of how you think Director Comey handled the unprecedented complexities of the 2016 election, the timing of this firing is very troubling,” Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse said in a statement. “As the chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Oversight Subcommittee, I have reached out to the Deputy Attorney General for clarity on his rationale for recommending this action.”
Republicans are calling out Trump’s timing
Republicans sounded a bit more skeptical about Trump’s decision to fire Comey Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, than in past news cycles about the Russia investigations. There is some, albeit slight, indication that this could lead to an independent commission to investigate.
Rep. Justin Amash, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said he and his staff “are reviewing legislation to establish an independent commission on Russia.” Amash added that parts of Trump’s letter to Comey were “bizarre,” citing a paragraph in which Trump thanked the former FBI director for assuring him, on three occasions, that the FBI was not investigation Trump himself.
Amash wasn’t alone in his concern.
Sen. Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, raised questions over the timing, and said he has reached out for more “clarity” on why the Deputy Attorney General recommended Trump fire Comey:
Sen. Jeff Flake, who has opposed the creation of an independent commission to investigate Russia’s influence on the election in the past, said he could not “find an acceptable rational for the timing of Comey’s firing.”
I've spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey's firing. I just can't do it.— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) May 10, 2017
Sen. John McCain, a longtime Trump skeptic, took it even further, saying he was “disappointed in the President’s decision to remove James Comey from office.”
“I have long called for a special congressional committee to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The president’s decision to remove the FBI Director only confirms the need and the urgency of such a committee,” McCain said in a statement.
Rep. Barbara Comstock, who represents a district that went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, also called for an independent review.
Another Republican, Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, calls for an independent investigation into Russia/2016. pic.twitter.com/zzZ2GXPq6Z— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) May 10, 2017
Sen. James Lankford, who sits on the Senate Committee for Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said he still wants answers, asking for “clarity” and an “explanation” for the firing:
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker said the timing of Trump’s decision “will raise some questions.”
Sen. Richard Burr, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, was in agreement: “I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination,” he said in a statement.
It’s still not clear whether any of these calls for “clarity” or investigation will make for a more thorough review in Congress. Background conversations with congressional aides seem to indicate that there is interest on both sides of the aisle. Even so, as the New York Times reported, special congressional panels would not be able to bring forward any criminal charges. They would, however, have subpoena power.
There are still a lot of Republicans on board with Comey’s firing
For months, Democrats have claimed that Comey’s infamous letter to Congress about newly discovered emails threw the presidency to Trump. Clinton herself cited the letter as one of the primary reasons behind her loss.
Until now, most Republicans have brushed off the claim as just another excuse after a devastating election for Democrats. But now some Republicans are using that very incident to defend Trump’s decision to fire him.
“The handling of the Clinton email investigation is a clear example of how Comey’s decisions have called into question the trust and political independence of the FBI,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement Tuesday. “Over the course of the last several months, Director Comey’s decisions on controversial matters have prompted concern from across the political spectrum and from career law enforcement experts,” Grassley said in his statement. “The effectiveness of the FBI depends upon the public trust and confidence, and unfortunately his has been lost.”
Just last week, Trump and the White House came to Comey’s defense. But after Trump’s decision to fire Comey, several key Republicans argued that the president was justified, putting out statements Tuesday night that sounded like they suddenly found it a topic of great concern.
House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte had essentially the same reaction as Grassley, raising the importance of having the “trust of the American people.”
“The FBI is the premier law enforcement agency in the world and it is critical to have a director who holds the trust of the American people. It is clearly the President's prerogative to remove the FBI Director, as was recommended by the top two officials at the Department of Justice,” he said in a statement.
Sen. Lindsey Graham acknowledge it was “a difficult decision” to fire Comey, but said it would give the FBI an opportunity to regain trust. “Given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well. I encourage the President to select the most qualified professional available who will serve our nation’s interests,” Graham said in a statement.
Sen. Ted Cruz also kept to the White House’s playbook on Comey’s firing.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who also sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, added that Comey’s firing certainly doesn’t mean the investigation into Trump’s Russia ties needs a special prosecutor.
It’s a message that has forced Republicans to contort into a bizarre position and adopt a Democratic critique, all to make it seem like Comey’s dismissal is a non-story.
As for the comparisons to this being Trump’s Watergate, Grassley simply said on Fox and Friends: “Suck it up and move on.”