President Donald Trump has asked James Comey to stay on as FBI director, a delicate decision because Comey is overseeing an inquiry into whether Russia colluded with Trump’s presidential campaign in the hacking and public release of top Democrats’ private emails, administration sources said Tuesday.
Former President Barack Obama appointed Comey to a 10-year term in 2013, but Trump had the prerogative of removing him from the job.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the White House would not interfere in the inquiry into Russia’s attempt to influence last November’s general elections, which also has touched on key figures in Trump’s campaign. Spicer also said Trump had not spoken to any administration officials about the inquiry.
“I don’t believe he has spoken to anyone specifically about that, and I don’t know that. He has not made any indication that he would stop an investigation of any sort,” Spicer said.
Trump’s decision came after he met with Comey last week. The New York Times first disclosed that Comey would stay in his job. Spicer and the FBI declined to comment.
Comey has on several occasions as FBI director, and previously while serving as deputy attorney general, found himself at the center of politically explosive investigations. He has not shied from controversial decisions.
He became a flashpoint for criticism from Democrats over his public handling of a lengthy investigation into whether Trump’s Democratic presidential campaign rival, Hillary Clinton, had improperly transmitted classified information via a personal email account she had used for conducting official business while secretary of state.
Comey announced July 5 that he would not recommend criminal charges against Clinton, saying “no reasonable prosecutor” would seek an indictment. However, he called her behavior “extremely careless.” Comey made the extraordinary public announcement without first notifying Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Then, on Oct. 28, less than two weeks before the election, Comey wrote Republican committee chairmen in Congress that newly discovered emails appeared to be pertinent to the investigation and that he had directed FBI agents to review them. Comey did so although officials at the Justice Department had warned him against sending the letters to Congress, citing department policy about avoiding the public release of information about criminal investigations in close proximity to the election.
Comey’s decision became public within hours. He had faced a Hobson’s choice. If he reopened the inquiry that he had publicly ended without letting the public know and Clinton were later prosecuted, he could face a hail of criticism.
FBI agents worked around the clock to review thousands of emails, and on Nov. 6, two days before the election, Comey announced that nothing in the emails had changed his earlier decision to clear Clinton of criminal wrongdoing. Nonetheless, political ads backing Trump continued to assert that Clinton was under criminal investigation as Americans flocked to the polls.
The Justice Department’s inspector general is conducting a review into whether Comey violated department policies in his handling of the matter.
While deputy attorney general, Comey drew widespread praise for challenging White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales’ attempt to extend a secret National Security Agency wiretapping program that Comey felt constituted illegal domestic spying. Comey and Gonzales separately raced to the Washington hospital room of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was being treated for a serious illness and lay feeble and barely able to talk, Comey later told Congress.
Comey testified that when Gonzales had asked Ashcroft to certify the program’s legality, Ashcroft turned toward Comey and said, “I’m not the attorney general. He is.” Comey, who was prepared to resign if the White House went ahead with the program, had been designated to stand in as attorney general until Ashcroft recovered.