WASHINGTON - President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey before the Justice Department's inspector general could complete a wide-ranging review of his handling of Hillary Clinton's email investigation.
Two weeks before Trump's inauguration, Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz took the extraordinary step of publicly announcing a review into the FBI's inquiry into Clinton’s use of a private server while secretary of State.
Trump, along with Justice Department leadership, said Tuesday they fired Comey for his controversial handling the Clinton case.
But the fact that Comey was fired as the official review of his actions was still ongoing is raising serious questions among congressional leaders and legal analysts about the speed with which Attorney General Jeff Sessions and newly-confirmed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein recommended Comey’s dismissal.
Democrat and some Republican lawmakers directly challenged the timing of of the director's abrupt firing, suggesting that it could be an attempt to redirect attention away from the FBI and congressional investigations analyzing possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
"The timing and reasoning incites people to believe that something is being covered up,'' said North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is reviewing Russian interference in the 2016 elections along with the House Intelligence Committee.
An "incredulous'' California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called on Trump and the Justice Department to explain why there was little reference to the looming Russia investigation in Comey's dismissal.
"If the reason for firing Comey was his handling of the Clinton investigation, why now?'' Feinstein asked.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., meanwhile, specifically referenced the inspector general's investigation, saying that review could have brought an independent assessment of Comey's fate.
"Why didn't the president wait for the conclusion of the inspector general's investigation?'' Schumer said Wednesday. "There is little reason to believe that Mr. Rosenstein's letter is the true reason Mr. Comey was dismissed.''
In a three-page memo to Sessions outlining the case for Comey's removal, released by the White House, Rosenstein offered a scathing account of the director's management of the Clinton investigation. Rosenstein specifically took issue with Comey's unusual July news conference that the FBI was recommending Clinton not be prosecuted, and later public announcement just 11 days before the November election that he was re-opening the inquiry.
"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. "As a result, the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a director who understand the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them.''
The written assessment, assembled during Rosenstein's first 10 days on the job, did not, however, mention the ongoing inspector general's inquiry that had been underway for nearly five months – and was being directed from a suite offices on the same floor as the new deputy attorney general.
That's not because it was secret. In fact, the Justice Department's investigation was strikingly public.
The launch of such internal Justice inquiries are rarely accompanied by a press release, but Horowitz, the inspector general, felt it necessary because of the cascade of requests for an investigation that poured in from lawmakers and even members of the public.
As attention turned to the bumpy transition to the Trump administration, little more was said about the internal probe that promised an exhumation of events that Clinton has claimed helped doom her bid for the White House – until last week. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where then-FBI Director James Comey offered an animated defense of the Clinton case.
He also turned more than few heads when he randomly acknowledged that the inspector general interview, but indicated that there may be a need for follow-up questioning.
"Lordy, has this been painful,'' Comey said of the firestorm prompted by his actions in the Clinton case. "I've gotten all kinds of rocks thrown at me, and this has been really hard. But I think I've down the right thing.''
Horowitz has declined to comment on the course of the review and the timing of its projected conclusion, but a team of investigators has been gathering documents and seeking witness interviews.
Among those also likely to be questioned include former Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who was fired by Trump while serving as acting attorney general during the initial days of the Trump administration. Yates' Jan. 30 dismissal followed her refusal to direct Justice attorneys to defend the president's controversial travel ban.
Ron Hosko, a former assistant FBI director who is familiar the inspector general process, said the Trump administration would have been better served had it waited for the completion of Horowitz's probe.
"I can clearly see the reasoning for Rosenstein's stated conclusions,'' Hosko said. "The director went too far. He usurped the role of a prosecutor by recommending that charges not be filed against the secretary. That's all true. And it was true five months ago.
"The timing of this decision is indeed questionable,'' Hosko said. "They (Trump administration officials) had the opportunity to hang their decision on the back of the IG investigation. Why they didn't only raises questions about their motives."
What's more, Hosko said "the way they did it" – allowing Comey to learn of his firing from media reports – "was insulting to him and to the entire FBI."
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