Virginia and Maryland Democrats in Congress spoke with a unified voice Wednesday, calling for special prosecutor or independent commission to take over a Russia inquiry after the abrupt firing of FBI Director James B. Comey.
Republicans? Not so much.
Reps. Bob Goodlatte, H. Morgan Griffith and Rob Wittman, from Virginia, and Andy Harris of Maryland played down the drama of the moment and said President Trump simply exercised his prerogative.
But Reps. Barbara Comstock of Northern Virginia and Scott W. Taylor of Virginia Beach questioned the timing of the dismissal and suggested that additional investigatory powers might be warranted.
The range of reactions from Republicans is the latest example of how Trump’s actions have put many of them in a bind, having to choose between what many of their constituents want and party loyalty.
The situation is particularly tricky for Comstock and other Republicans who represent congressional districts that Trump lost. Four Democrats are already vying to try to deprive Comstock of a third term, and activists have been incessantly calling, writing and showing up at her office since Trump entered the White House.
Comstock, who worked with Comey when she was director of public affairs at the Justice Department in 2002 and 2003, released a statement shortly after midnight Tuesday.
“Both Democrats and Republicans attacked the FBI Director at various times for various reasons and called for his ouster. However, I can’t defend or explain tonight’s actions or timing of the firing of FBI Director James Comey,” she said.
She went on to say the FBI investigation into the Russian impact on the 2016 election must continue and “there must be an independent investigation that the American people can trust.”
In a phone interview late Wednesday, Comstock said the FBI and Senate probes into any Russian ties to the administration should continue before a special commission is considered. She declined to speculate why Trump fired the FBI director. But, she said, after many years of service someone like Comey “might deserve a phone call.”
Comstock said she was most concerned that federal agents, many of whom live in her district, know their work will not be politicized.
“You follow where the facts lead,” she said. “If someone finds that there’s nothing criminal here they need to know they’re not going to get beat up by the Democrats who are calling for everyone’s head.”
Taylor, a first-term congressman and former Navy SEAL in a military-heavy district, also walked a fine line, saying he was “troubled” by the timing of Comey’s firing.
“Director Comey made missteps, but if they were significant enough for his dismissal, it should have happened months ago,” he said, adding that he has seen no evidence of Trump administration officials colluding with Russia.
He warned that if Trump fails to appoint an “independent and nonpolitical” replacement for Comey then “a select committee or special prosecutor” might be necessary.
Comey was scheduled to testify Thursday at the Senate Intelligence Committee’s annual oversight hearing, but the acting director, Andrew McCabe, will appear instead. Leaders of the committee invited Comey to a closed session Thursday.
“Now more than ever, it is vital that our ongoing investigation is completed in a credible and bipartisan way,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said in a statement. “We also need to hear directly from former Director Comey about the FBI investigation and related events.”
He added that a special counsel must also be appointed “to demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law, which has so far been sorely lacking.”
Hillary Clinton has in part blamed her loss of the presidential race on Comey’s 11th-hour statements about her emails. On Wednesday, her former running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), said Trump fired Comey to try to stop the Russia investigation.
Trump is a “deeply insecure president who understands that the noose is tightening because of this Russia investigation,” Kaine told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
While many Democrats called for a special prosecutor, Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a former a constitutional law professor, said such a prosecutor would operate “under the thumb” of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and said he prefers an independent commission modeled after the 9/11 Commission.
“As somebody who remembers Watergate, it reminded me of the Saturday Night Massacre,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said in an interview, referring to President Richard M. Nixon’s orders to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox during that scandal. “I think this is tantamount to obstruction, because the clear motive here is to halt the ongoing investigation into the Russia connections with senior Trump administration officials.”
But most Republicans said they saw Comey’s dismissal differently.
Harris, the only Republican in the Maryland delegation, said that the FBI director serves at the discretion of the president and that the recommendation to terminate Comey came from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, whom he called “a man committed to justice and widely respected by his peers.”
“I trust the judgment of Mr. Rosenstein, and I believe the president and attorney general should choose a director in whom they and the American people have full confidence,” he said.
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), who like Harris is a member of the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus, did not directly answer when he was asked at a raucous town hall Tuesday night whether he would advocate for a special prosecutor.
But on Wednesday, Brat hinted that he might support an independent investigation.
“I continue to have faith in the judgement of those sitting on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to continue to perform their investigative responsibilities. If the evidence they gather points to the need for a special prosecutor, I am open to it,” he wrote.
A spokesman for Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.), who also faced an unhappy town hall crowd Tuesday night, did not return calls.