Sunday 19 November 2017

Donald Trump could pick new FBI director within a week, as experts question legality of James Comey sacking

Former FBI director James Comey
Former FBI director James Comey

Ruth Sherlock

Donald Trump could name a replacement for James Comey within a week, the US president said, as some experts challenged the legality of the decision to fire the FBI director.

Jeff Sessions, the United States attorney general, began interviewing candidates to for the role on Saturday, with the White House hoping to move on from the decision which plunged the Trump administration into a week-long crisis.

"We can make a fast decision," Mr Trump said. "I think the process is going to go quickly."

Mr Trump suggested a new candidate for FBI director, who would need to be confirmed by the senate, may be chosen as soon as this week, before he leaves on his first foreign trip since taking office.

His comments came ahead of an address to students at Liberty University, an evangelical institution that was designed to both inspire the youth audience and help lift the darkened mood that hangs over his administration.

There struck a defiant tone, telling students to relish the opportunity to be an outsider". Dismissing life's "chorus of critics", he told them to "never, ever give up" and "never stop fighting for what you believe in".

The first candidate to meet Mr Sessions was Alice Fisher, a 50-year-old white-collar Washington crime lawyer. She previously ran the criminal justice division of the justice department during the second part of George W Bush's term.

She faced resistance from Democrats during her confirmation over her alleged participation in discussions about detention policies at the Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba. She was also deputy special counsel to the Senate special committee that investigated President Bill Clinton's Whitewater scandal.

She is  the first woman ever to have served as assistant US attorney general. There has never been a female FBI director, in the bureau's 109-year history.

Michael Garcia (55) an associate judge on New York's highest court, and John Cornyn, the second most senior Republican in the Senate are also said to be in the running.

Andrew McCabe, the acting director of the FBI since Mr Comey was fired is also being considered. Widely praised for his independence he has been described by colleagues as someone who does not seek the limelight and a "by the book, apolitical prosecutor's prosecutor".

In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mr McCabe directly contradicted Mr Trump's assertion that the FBI was in "turmoil" under Mr Comey's leadership.

Mr Trump said on Saturday that all the candidates are "are very well known", and suggested the process could go quickly because they had been "been vetted over their lifetime, essentially".

His administration has already faced criticism over its  vetting procedures. The White House has admitted they had relied on the security clearances provided by the Obama administration when they hired Michael Flynn as national security adviser.

Mr Flynn was then dismissed after he misled the vice president about the nature of his conversations with Segei Kislyak, Russia's ambassador in Washington.

The search for a new FBI director came amid growing questions over the legality of the president's sacking of Mr Comey, and Mr Sessions' suitability to find a replacement.

Legal experts suggested that Mr Trump's decision to fire the man investigating his associates' alleged links to the Kremlin could constitute a possible case of "obstruction of justice".

“It’s all about the purpose with which it’s done," Samuel Buell, the Duke University  told the Washington Post.

"In theory, trying to intimidate, silence, or even influence someone who is investigating you could be obstruction of justice.”

An ethics watchdog filed a legal complaint this week, alleging that his participation in the firing violated justice department rules and Mr Sessions’s previous promise to recuse himself from matters involving the Russia.

Mr Sessions, who played an active role in Mr Trump's election campaign was pressured to recuse himself from investigations into allegations of connections between that campaign and the Kremlin.

He agreed to do so after it emerged he had failed to disclosing during his confirmation hearing that he also met with the Russian ambassador in Washington during the campaign.

“Firing the lead investigator is the most extreme form of interfering with an investigation,” said Fred Wertheimer, who signed complaint on behalf of his organisation, Democracy 21.

He called for Mr Sessions to withdraw from any participation in the selection of an interim or permanent FBI director.

The report was filed as some investigators said there was a "general fear" within the FBI the Trump administration could try to interfere with the investigation into Russia.

Whilst Mr McCabe, who now heads the investigation insisted it would continue, unnamed sources in the bureau were concerned about its future if Mr Trump were to "appoint some crony" who might tamp down on the inquiry.

Mr Trump has said he doesn't believe there is a need to appoint an independent special prosecutor. And with a minority in Congress, Democrats would have to be backed with overwhelming support to force such an appointment through.

The events of the last week have spurred talk of impeachment among Democrats in Congress, even though they would have virtually no power to initiate such proceedings.

But the Comey firing has angered some Republicans too. It has, for example, given a new lease of life to a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into Mr Trump's Russia connections.

Some had complained that Richard Burr, the Republican chairman had been initially lacklustre in pushing forward with the investigation.

But Mr Burr said he was "troubled" by Mr Comey's sacking, and he and Mark Wanrer, the Democrat vice chairman presented a united front this week, reportedly meeting quietly in person almost daily.

With Washington in crisis, one official said they are "trying to be the adults in the room".

Telegraph.co.uk

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