FBI Director Comey fired amid Russia probe

PHOTO: FBI Director James Comey pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, May 3, 2017.PlayCarolyn Kaster/AP Photo
WATCH President Trump fires FBI Director James Comey

FBI Director James Comey has been fired, according to the White House.

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"Today, President Donald J. Trump informed FBI Director James Comey that he has been terminated and removed from office," the White House statement reads.

"President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions," the statement continues.

Comey's termination was read to him over the phone while he was traveling for the bureau in Los Angeles, two FBI sources told ABC News. He was there for a field office inspection and a recruitment event this evening that's part of the FBI's efforts to boost diversity. A separate FBI official told ABC News that Comey first learned of his firing by seeing news reports on TV. The official said Comey was "surprised, really surprised" and was "caught flat-footed."

FBI agents and staff are stunned by the news, FBI sources told ABC News. Inside the FBI, there are discussions about whether Comey will be able to address the bureau he led one final time, but it is not clear that will happen.

Comey was spotted boarding a private jet at Los Angeles International Airport this evening.

In addition to a statement, the White House released the letter that Trump wrote directly to Comey dismissing him at the recommendation of the attorney general and the deputy attorney general, "effective immediately."

"While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau," Trump writes.

"It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission," Trump's letter states.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump shakes hands with James Comey, director of the FBI, during areception in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., Jan. 22, 2017.Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Donald Trump shakes hands with James Comey, director of the FBI, during areception in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., Jan. 22, 2017.

While testifying in front of the House Committee on Intelligence on March 20, 2017, Comey took the rare step of confirming the FBI was investigating Russian interference in the U.S. election and "any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions' letter to the president was also released, wherein he states that he has "concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI."

"It is essential that this Department of Justice clearly reaffirm its commitment to longstanding principles that ensure the integrity and fairness of federal investigations and prosecutions. The Director of the FBI must be someone who follows faithfully the rules and principles of the Department of Justice and who sets the right example for our law enforcement officials and others in the Department," Sessions writes.

The letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein credits Comey with being "an articulate and persuasive public speaker about leadership" but goes on to note that he "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."

"Almost everyone agrees that the Director made serious mistakes; it is one the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives," Rosenstein writes.

Rosenstein says in the letter that it was wrong of Comey to say that the investigation into Clinton's private email server should be closed and that no charges should be issued.

The letter goes on to allege that Comey was wrong to later "hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation."

Typically when the FBI decides not to bring charges against someone, it normally does not discuss its decision-making. When Comey held a July 5 news conference explaining why Clinton would not be facing charges but at the same time criticizing her email practices, he cited "intense public interest" as the reason for the exception.

Trump praised Comey in late October, 2016, saying "it took guts" for Comey to announce that the FBI would be reviewing emails in the previously closed investigation into Clinton's private email server.

During an interview on CNN Tuesday night, Anderson Cooper asked White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, "Why now are you concerned about the Hillary Clinton email investigation, when as a candidate, Trump was praising it from the campaign trail?"

Conway responded, "I think you're looking at the wrong set of facts here. In other words, you're going back to the campaign, this man is the president of the United States. He acted decisively today. He acted at the direction of his deputy attorney general. He makes complete sense because he has lost confidence in the FBI director and he took the recommendation of Rob Rosenstein."

She also responded to Sen. Chuck Schumer's, D-N.Y., comments implying that Comey's firing is a way to distract from the investigation into the Trump campaign's possible ties with Russia.

Conway said the firing "was not a cover up," rather, it was "about restoring public confidence" in the FBI. "This has nothing to do with Russia," she reiterated.

She continued, "This has everything to do with whether the current FBI director has the president's confidence and can faithfully and capably execute his duties. The deputy attorney general decided that was not the case. He wrote a very long memorandum about it. He presented that to the attorney general. The attorney general presented it to the president. The president took the recommendations as he says in his brief very powerful letter today. He took the recommendations and he agreed that the only way to restore confidence and trust ... was to have a new director."

The president also took aim at Schumer, tweeting Tuesday night, "Cryin' Chuck Schumer stated recently, 'I do not have confidence in him (James Comey) any longer." Then acts so indignant. #draintheswamp."

And in a Tuesday night interview with ABC News, press secretary Sean Spicer rebuked Democrats' strong condemnation of the firing.

"When you look at the bipartisan nature that should welcome this you have Sen. Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton all calling for or acknowledging the lack of confidence they had in the FBI director over the last several months," Spicer said. "This is an action taken by the president upon the recommendation of deputy attorney general, the attorney general that I think should be greeted with strong bipartisan support.”

Spicer told ABC it "was a DOJ decision" to look into Comey, and that "no one from the White House" prompted the review. Spicer also said Trump met with acting FBI director Andrew McCabe in the Oval Office Tuesday night, but wouldn't comment further on the meeting.

The acting FBI director is Andrew McCabe, who was Comey's deputy prior to his firing. The attorney general will likely name an interim FBI director in the coming days amid the search for a permanent replacement.

Trump has previously been critical of Comey, suggesting that his actions helped Hillary Clinton during the campaign, while Clinton blamed Comey and his late announcement about the FBI's investigation into her email server contributed to her electoral college loss.

"FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds! The phony Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?" Trump wrote in two tweets on May 2.

In the wake of those tweets, Sean Spicer said "the president has confidence in the director" on May 3.

At the White House press briefing today, however, Spicer was reluctant to repeat that statement without first checking with the president. When ABC News' Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl pressed Spicer today about the Comey’s inaccurate statements to Congress regarding Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s handling of emails, Spicer said he’d have to speak to the president first.

"In light of what you are telling me, I don't want to start speaking on behalf of the president without speaking to him first," Spicer said.

In a statement, the FBI Agents Association said in part that "FBI Agents should be given a voice in the process of selecting the next Director."

Comey, 56, was appointed to head the FBI in September 2013 by then-President Barack Obama. FBI directors typically serve a 10-year term, and his firing today means that he will have only served less than four years. Prior to that, he served as a deputy attorney general and a state's attorney.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, was one of the first politicians outside of the White House to release a statement. Graham acknowledged that it "was a difficult decision for all concerned" and said that he appreciates Comey's public service.

"Given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well. I encourage the President to select the most qualified professional available who will serve our nation’s interests," Graham's statement concluded.

ABC News' Alex Stone and Jack Date contributed to this report.

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