President Donald Trump fired James Comey on Tuesday after a Justice Department review found the FBI director had usurped the attorney general's authority by closing a probe into Hillary Clinton's use of private email.
The dismissal shocked political Washington currently embroiled in partisan disputes over whether Russian influence operations tilted the election toward Trump and whether the outgoing Obama administration had conducted improper political spying operations.
The bombshell announcement came late Tuesday afternoon and followed a recommendation earlier in the day from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who told the president the dismissal was recommended by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
"I have accepted their recommendation and you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately," Trump said in a letter to Comey, adding that he greatly appreciated Comey's notification on three occasions that Trump was not under investigation.
Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, stated in a three-page memorandum that over the past year the FBI's reputation and credibility "suffered substantial damage," affecting the entire Justice Department.
Comey was "mistaken" to end the FBI investigation of Clinton's email and has refused to recognize the failure, the memo said.
"The director was wrong to usurp the attorney general's authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution," the memo stated.
"It is not the function of the director to make such an announcement. At most, the director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors."
Last July, Comey held an extraordinary press conference announcing that Clinton should not be prosecuted despite evidence of mishandling highly classified information placed on an unsecure email service. He said no reasonable prosecutor would bring a case against the former secretary of state despite negligent handling of secrets.
Then on Oct. 28, less than two weeks before the Nov. 8 election, Comey wrote to Congress stating he was re-opening the email investigation based on additional emails found on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, the husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
Clinton said last week that Comey’s intervention, along with Russia and WikiLeaks disclosures, had cost her the election.
"I was on the way to winning until the combination of Jim Comey's letter on Oct. 28 and Russian Wikileaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me but got scared off," she said. "And the evidence for that intervening event is compelling, persuasive."
Comey told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week the reason he went public with the renewed email probe so close to the election was that the Justice Department had been compromised by former President Bill Clinton holding a meeting with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Comey testified he worried that not informing Congress of the renewed email investigation would be concealment and draw political fire on FBI investigators.
"It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election," Comey said. "But honestly, it wouldn't change the decision."
The Rosenstein memo criticized Comey for going public, stating "the goal of a federal criminal investigation is not to announce our thoughts at a press conference."
The memo said several former senior Justice Department officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations share the view that Comey acted inappropriately in the Clinton email case and strayed from past practices in keeping quiet about investigations.
"The way the director handled the conclusion of the email investigation was wrong," the memo said.
"As a result, the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them. Having refused to admit his errors, the director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions."
The FBI also has been under fire from Republicans on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which is investigating whether the Obama administration misused electronic intelligence to spy on members of the Trump transition team.
Documents uncovered by Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.), the House committee chairman, said he has seen "dozens" of intelligence reports produced between November and January that unmasked the identities of Americans who were inadvertently spied on during a foreign electronic spying operation.
The FBI has failed to provide documents to the House intelligence committee that could help answer questions about who requested the unmasking and why the sensitive intelligence reports were widely disseminated throughout the government.
Intelligence disclosed to several newspapers based on the intercepts led to the dismissal of White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in February.
Several congressional Democrats criticized the firing and claimed the president's action was designed to derail an ongoing FBI counterintelligence inquiry into possible cooperation between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), who earlier said he had lost confidence in Comey, criticized the firing as an attempt to derail investigations into Russian election tampering and called for a special commission.
"This is part of a deeply troubling pattern on the part of the Trump administration," Schumer said, noting the earlier dismissal of acting Attorney General Sally Yates.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) said he was disappointed with the dismissal.
"James Comey is a man of honor and integrity, and he has led the FBI well in extraordinary circumstances," McCain said. "I have long called for a special congressional committee to investigate Russia's interference in the 2016 election. The president's decision to remove the FBI director only confirms the need and the urgency of such a committee."
Sessions, the attorney general, said based on the Rosenstein memo he believes the FBI leadership needs a fresh start and that Comey should be removed from his post.
"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," Sessions said.
"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."
Comey is only the second FBI director to be fired since the law enforcement agency was created in 1908. William Sessions was fired by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Comey, 56, was a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and former deputy attorney general.
He was appointed FBI director in September 2013 and was in the sixth year of his 10-year term.