The US justice department had been considering firing James Comey for months before Donald Trump terminated the FBI director, deputy attorney-general Rod Rosenstein told Congress on Friday.
The news, disclosed in an opening statement released by the DoJ, came as Mr Rosenstein defended his own recommendation that Mr Comey be fired, which the White House originally cited as the reason for the dismissal.
“In one of my first meetings with then-Senator Jeff Sessions last winter, we discussed the need for new leadership at the FBI,” he said, referring to the former Alabama lawmaker who is now the attorney-general.
Appearing on Capitol Hill for the second consecutive day, Mr Rosenstein told lawmakers that he stood by his much criticised May 9 memorandum.
President Trump later said in a televised interview that he had planned to fire Mr Comey no matter what advice he received, citing “this Russia thing,” a reference to the FBI’s investigation of alleged links between his presidential campaign and Russia.
Mr Comey was guilty of a series of errors that “departed from the proper role of the FBI director and damaged public confidence in the Bureau and the Department,” Mr Rosenstein said.
He also denied published reports that Mr Comey had been fired after requesting additional resources for the FBI’s Russia probe. “I am not aware of any such request,” he said. “Moreover, I consulted my staff and acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, and none of them recalls such a request.”
Mr Rosenstein briefed members of the House of Representatives on Friday, one day after appearing before the full Senate in a special facility shielded from electronic surveillance. In both sessions, the career federal prosecutor said that Mr Comey’s public statements about the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email use warranted his removal from office.
Mr Rosenstein said he learnt on May 8 that Mr Trump, who had praised Mr Comey during last year’s campaign, planned to fire the FBI director. When the president “sought my advice and input”, Mr Rosenstein said he prepared a memorandum to Mr Sessions, “summarising my longstanding concerns” about Mr Comey’s statements about the Clinton email inquiry.
FBI officials typically say nothing in public about the outcome of investigations. Mr Comey instead held a news conference on July 5 to explain why he was recommending that Mrs Clinton face no charges for using a private email server as secretary of state, a decision that Mr Rosenstein labelled “profoundly wrong and unfair both to [the] Department of Justice and Secretary Clinton.”
When additional emails were later discovered on a laptop belonging to former congressman Anthony Weiner, Mr Comey told Congress on October 28 that he was reopening the investigation, a decision that promptly leaked to the press and upended the presidential campaign’s final days.
Mr Comey’s approach “explicitly usurped the role of the attorney-general, the deputy attorney-general and the entire Department of Justice; it violated deeply ingrained rules and traditions; and it guaranteed that some people would accuse the FBI of interfering in the election,” Mr Rosenstein said.
Mr Rosenstein, the former US attorney for Maryland, took office in April with a sterling reputation and amid praise from members of both parties. But his authorship of the memorandum justifying Mr Comey’s termination was roundly panned, with some lawmakers questioning his integrity and willingness to rationalise the president’s sudden decision.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the three-page memo “hastily assembled” and a “political document.”
Mr Rosenstein said his paper was “not a legal brief…(or)...a finding of official misconduct.”
“It is a candid internal memorandum about the FBI Director’s public statements concerning a high-profile criminal investigation,” he said, adding: “I wrote it. I believe it. I stand by it.”
Mr Rosenstein said he prepared the memorandum after a May 8 White House meeting with the president. The veteran prosecutor did not say if anyone ordered him to draft the document. But he said that he had chosen the issues to discuss.
He asked several career DoJ attorneys to review the document for accuracy before dispatching it to the attorney-general on the afternoon of May 9, a few hours before the White House announced Mr Comey’s firing.
The FBI director, who held Mr Rosenstein’s job in the Bush administration, was visiting the bureau’s Los Angeles office when he learnt of his termination from television news reports. Mr Comey, appointed in 2013 by President Barack Obama, was less than four years into his 10-year term.
“I love this work. I love this job,” he told the Senate judiciary committee during a recent public hearing.
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