President Donald Trump’s abrupt termination of FBI Director James Comey has rattled even some GOP lawmakers, who say they are troubled by the circumstances and timing. But the top Republican in the Senate is markedly unruffled — despite the evidence that Trump sacked the head of the FBI in order to stymie an investigation into alleged collusion between his associates and the Russian government.
On Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) defended Comey’s firing and resisted calls for an independent investigation into the allegations.
“Two investigations [into the Russia allegations] are currently ongoing: the Senate intelligence committee’s review of active measures and intelligence activities, and the FBI investigation disclosed by Director Comey,” said McConnell, speaking from the Senate floor. “Today we’ll no doubt hear calls for a new investigation, which could only serve to impede the current work being done to not only discover what the Russians may have done, [but] also to let this body and the national security community develop countermeasures and war fighting doctrine to see that it doesn’t occur again.”
One might argue that firing Comey in the middle of an investigation would also “serve to impede the current work being done.” But McConnell argued that the firing was justified because of Comey’s conduct during the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server — and that Democrats were hypocrites for suggesting otherwise.
“What we have now… are Democratic colleagues complaining about the removal of an FBI director whom they themselves repeatedly and sharply criticized; that removal being done by a man, [Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein, whom they repeatedly and effusively praised,” McConnell said. “When Mr. Rosenstein recommended Mr. Comey’s removal for many of the very reasons that they consistently complained about.”
Rosenstein did indeed write that “the way the Director handled the conclusion of the email investigation was wrong,” and that “the FBI is unlikely to regain the public and congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them.” But his letter stopped just short of calling for Comey’s removal. That recommendation was made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation after it emerged that he had misled Congress regarding his communications with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Multiple news outlets have reported that the White House was actively searching for a pretext to remove Comey when Rosenstein submitted his letter. Several of these reports cited Trump’s fury over the persistence of the Russia investigation as the main reason for seeking the FBI director’s removal.
On Tuesday night, one of Trump’s own surrogates, Kellyanne Conway, contradicted the official line that the FBI director’s handling of the email investigation had anything to do with his ouster.
The claim that current investigations are more than sufficient is an old line for McConnell, who has spent months pushing back against the chorus of support for an independent commission outside the Republican-controlled standing committee structure. But his role in suppressing the allegations of Russian collusion goes even deeper than that. During the 2016 election, he worked behind the scenes to quash a public airing of U.S. intelligence findings that the Kremlin was interfering in the race, according to the Washington Post.
When presented with evidence of Russian sabotage, sources told the Post, “McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.”
After the evidence came out anyway and the Obama administration levied new sanctions against Russia, McConnell criticized the Democratic White House for taking so long to mount a response. “Sanctions against the Russian intelligence services are a good initial step, however late in coming,” he said.