The firing of FBI director James Comey eliminated one of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s most critical allies in investigating President Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Russia, potentially knocking the probe into turmoil.
Comey, who led the FBI since 2013, confirmed publicly in March that the bureau was investigating potential ties between Trump associates and the Russian government. He’s emerged as a perhaps unexpected ally for the Senate Intelligence Committee as it conducts its own probe into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.
His removal left the intelligence committee, which did not appear to have received a heads up, stunned on Tuesday night.
“Director Comey has been more forthcoming with information than any FBI Director I can recall in my tenure on the congressional intelligence committees,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr said in a statement. The North Carolina Republican added he was “troubled” by the firing. “His dismissal, I believe, is a loss for the Bureau and the nation.”
The Senate Intelligence panel’s investigation has been held up as perhaps the last hope for the public to understand the full scope of how the Russian government worked to undermine the 2016 election, including any potential Russian efforts to compromise members of Trump’s campaign team.
With the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation in partisan tatters and the FBI’s probe behind tightly locked doors, the Senate panel has been moving forward due in part to Comey’s willingness to work with the congressional probe — and members trusting he would protect his own investigation from political pressure.
Outside the committee’s secure office spaces Tuesday night, news of Comey’s firing was met with shock, and a tangible fear that members — after months of working to ensure the probe was bipartisan and credible — may have just lost their key ally. Despite treading across fiercely political territory, Comey has won at least grudging approval, if not high marks, from the committee’s Republicans and Democrats who saw him as one of the few adults in the room.
“I think it’s safe to say that Jim Comey had the trust of both Republicans and Democrats,” panel vice chair Mark Warner said in an interview.
Despite partisan concerns over his handling of the Clinton investigation, Comey was trusted by both parties to protect the bureau’s running investigation into Trump’s potential Russia ties — an undertaking that put him at direct odds with his White House bosses.
Another official, requesting anonymity to discuss the probe, said that even if some Democrats didn’t prefer Comey, they trusted he wasn’t “overtly influenced by one side or the other.”
As it moved forward, the channels between the Senate panel and Comey were uniquely open, especially on the Russia issue. Members talked with Comey routinely, and under his lead, the FBI was being relatively cooperative in coordinating the committee’s own Russia investigation, which involves access to some of the same material the FBI is examining for its probe.
It’s a situation that would naturally lead to conflict, given the bureau’s tendency to fiercely protect its own turf. But under Comey’s leadership, the bureau and the committee have worked with relative ease.
Where the bureau’s investigation goes without Comey remains to be seen. Democrats on the committee, including Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Martin Heinrich, renewed calls Tuesday night for a special commission to investigate the alleged ties between Trump and Russia.
“If this is an effort to stop the investigations into Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, it won’t succeed,” Heinrich said in a statement. “This is a direct attack on the integrity and independence of the FBI. I’m renewing my call for an independent prosecutor to take over this investigation.”