Comey’s sudden ouster has Republicans divided

Comey’s sudden ouster has Republicans divided
© Greg Nash

President Trump’s shocking decision to fire FBI Director James Comey is splitting the Republican Party.

Leaders on Capitol Hill are defending the move and attacking Democrats for hypocrisy while vulnerable rank-and-file Republicans and GOP mavericks are breaking with the White House.

Here’s The Hill’s look at how different GOP factions are reacting to Trump’s bombshell decision to oust the controversial head of the FBI. 

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Vulnerable 2018 Republicans

The House is out on a weeklong recess, and most House Republicans are ducking questions about Comey’s firing. But many Republicans facing tough 2018 reelection races used Comey’s ouster to renew calls for an independent panel or special committee to investigate Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Comey had launched a probe into Russian meddling, as well as that country’s ties to Trump campaign associates, before he was terminated.

“I can’t defend or explain [Tuesday’s] actions or timing of the firing of FBI Director James Comey,” said vulnerable Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), a former Justice Department staffer who represents a district just outside Washington, D.C. “The FBI investigation into the Russian impact on the 2016 election must continue. There must be an independent investigation that the American people can trust.”

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who represents the Miami area and is another top Democratic target, said the American public needs “a transparent explanation as to how this decision was reached and why it was executed at this time.

“Today, I reiterate the need for Congress to establish a Select Committee with full investigatory powers to thoroughly examine this matter,” Curbelo said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) wrote on Facebook that the White House’s explanation for Comey’s firing has been “insufficient.” And Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) echoed Comstock’s call for an independent probe.

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Comstock, Curbelo, Costello and Paulsen’s congressional districts all backed Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote MORE last November.

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a former chairman of the House Ethics Committee, called Comey’s firing “both confounding and troubling, and it is now harder to resist calls for an independent investigation or select committee.”

“The president must provide a much clearer explanation as to the timing and rationale for this action,” Dent said.

Possible 2020 presidential primary challengers

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) was one of the first voices to criticize Trump’s decision to fire Comey.

Kasich, whom Trump trounced in the 2016 GOP primary, never really stopped campaigning after the election and has been playing coy about a potential primary challenge to Trump in 2020.

“I am extremely troubled by the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, who has served this nation honorably,” Kasich said.

Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashAmash warns of turning lawmakers like Cheney into 'heroes' Cheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP Biden: 'Prince Philip gladly dedicated himself to the people of the UK' MORE (R-Mich.), a self-described constitutionalist and member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, has repeatedly needled Trump on Twitter, saying the president’s policies and decisions suggest he doesn’t have a good grasp of the Constitution.

A favorite of libertarians, Amash has been encouraged to challenge Trump in 2020.

After Comey’s ouster, Amash tweeted that he and his staff “are reviewing legislation to establish an independent commission on Russia.”

GOP leadership

Republican leaders are standing by Trump.

Democrats have denounced Trump’s decision to remove the man leading the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

But in a floor speech Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Trump takes two punches from GOP MORE (R-Ky.) suggested Democrats were hypocrites, since they had called for Comey’s dismissal over his decision days before the election to renew the FBI’s probe of Clinton’s handling of classified information while secretary of State.

“Our Democratic colleagues are complaining about the removal of an FBI director whom they themselves repeatedly and sharply criticized,” McConnell said.

The leader tamped down calls on Capitol Hill for a new, independent probe, saying ongoing investigations into Russian hacking by both the FBI and Senate Intelligence Committee were sufficient.

“Today, we’ll no doubt hear calls for a new investigation, which could only serve to impede the current work being done ... to discover what the Russians may have done,” he said.

McConnell’s top deputy, Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynSenate votes to take up infrastructure deal Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division MORE (R-Texas), also backed Trump’s decision, dismissing the idea that Comey was fired to quash the Russia probe as a “phony narrative.”

Top House GOP leaders waited more than 24 hours before making any public comments about Comey’s removal. That cautious approach allowed the red-hot issue to die down a bit, but leadership still rallied behind the president.

During an appearance on Fox News, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Juan Williams: Biden's child tax credit is a game-changer Trump clash ahead: Ron DeSantis positions himself as GOP's future in a direct-mail piece MORE (R-Wis.) defended Comey’s dismissal, saying the former director had lost of the confidence of Democrats, Republicans, and the president.

“It is entirely within the president’s authority to relieve him, and that’s what he did,” said Ryan, who rejected calls for a special prosecutor as a bad idea and unnecessary. “I do think that Director Comey was compromised.” 

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“Clearly, his superiors in the Justice Department felt that way. And the president made a presidential decision to remove him.” 

The mavericks

Arizona’s two maverick GOP senators, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain to produce 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff' Lifetime movie starring Heather Locklear An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Meghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' MORE and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE, have never been fans of Trump. That continued with Trump’s firing of Comey.

“I’ve spent the last hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey’s firing. I just can’t do it,” Flake tweeted.

Meanwhile, McCain likened Trump’s action to the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre,” when President Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor probing the Watergate break-in that eventually led to Nixon’s impeachment and resignation. Cox’s termination was preceded by the resignation of Nixon’s attorney general and deputy attorney general, who both refused the order to fire Cox. 

“This scandal is going to go on. I’ve seen it before,” McCain told a meeting of the Munich Security Conference core group, according to The Washington Post. “This is a centipede. I guarantee you there will be more shoes to drop, I can just guarantee it. There’s just too much information that we don’t have that will be coming out.”

A third GOP senator who has frequently clashed with Trump, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, called the timing of Comey’s ouster “very troubling.”

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“Jim Comey is an honorable public servant,” Sasse said, “and in the midst of a crisis of public trust that goes well beyond who you voted for in the presidential election, the loss of an honorable public servant is a loss for the nation.”

Still, not all of Trump’s 2016 critics broke with him on this issue. Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz228 Republican lawmakers urge Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade GOP, Democrats battle over masks in House, Senate Human rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action MORE (R-Texas), a presidential rival whose wife and father were personally attacked by Trump, defended his former foe’s decision.

“Mr. Comey had lost the confidence of both Republicans and Democrats, and, frankly, the American people,” Cruz said.