The president has fired FBI Director James Comey, who was overseeing an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections and possible ties to the Trump campaign and top aides.
Comey had been scheduled to deliver a keynote address to FBI recruits at a hiring event in Hollywood, part of the FBI's Diversity Agent Recruitment Program, on Tuesday evening. However, he left Hollywood for Los Angeles International Airport late Tuesday afternoon, taking off around 6 p.m.
The White House pointed to Comey's handling of the probe into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's private email server while secretary of state as the reason for his dismissal. But Democrats were quick to contend that the decision by President Trump was part of an effort to impede the Justice Department's Russia investigation and said the probe could now only be managed by a special prosecutor going forward.
"Today, President Donald J. Trump informed FBI Director James Comey that he has been terminated and removed from office. President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions," White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement.
"The FBI is one of our Nation's most cherished and respected institutions and today will mark a new beginning for our crown jewel of law enforcement," the president said in the statement.
The abrupt decision by the White House brings to an end a tumultuous tenure for the career prosecutor who found himself at the center of controversy about the 2016 election, taking heat from both sides.
But it also raised questions about the ongoing Russia probe, with Democrats saying the firing was an effort by the White House to derail the investigation.
"The first question the administration has to answer is, 'Why now?'" said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "If the administration had objections to the way Director Comey handled the Clinton investigation, they had those objections the minute the president got into office. But they didn't fire him then. Why did it happen today?"
"If Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein does not appoint an independent special prosecutor, every American will rightly suspect that the decision to fire Director Comey was part of a cover-up," Schumer continued.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina both said they received calls from Trump regarding the decision to fire Comey. Graham is heading the panel's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and Feinstein is the top Democrat on the committee.
Neither senator criticized the decision. Graham was supportive, saying that "given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well."
Feinstein said Trump told her the FBI needed a change, and that the next director "must be strong and independent."
California's junior Sen. Kamala Harris responded to the firing on Twitter with her own call for a special prosecutor to investigate connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Rep. Adam Schiff of L.A. County, top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said the White House was "brazenly interfering" in the probe.
Comey first made waves in July 2016 when he announced that the FBI was not recommending any charges against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over her handling of her controversial private server while she was secretary of state during the Obama administration.
But even though there would be no prosecution, Comey's press conference in and of itself was damning, as he declared that Clinton and her staff had been "extremely careless" in handling classified data — fodder that Trump and Republicans would use throughout the campaign.
But Rosenstein, Trump's deputy attorney general, said in his memorandum to Attorney General Jeff Sessions that those actions were in part what motivated his dismissal:
"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. 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."
On Twitter last week, Trump claimed that Comey "was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!"
Comey again found himself at the center of a political firestorm when less than two weeks before Election Day last year he notified Congress he was re-opening the investigation into Clinton's emails. The Democratic nominee said last week she believed that controversial decision contributed to her loss.
"It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election," Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week in defending his decision. "But honestly, it wouldn't change the decision."
Comey confirmed earlier this year that the FBI was investigating possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian attempts to influence the U.S. presidential election. The president has repeatedly downplayed any investigation, dismissing it as a "total hoax."
In his letter to Comey relieving him of his duties effective immediately, Trump alluded to the ongoing Russia investigation but also stressed that he had not personally been implicated:
"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."
But the ongoing Russia investigation complicates Trump's decision to fire Comey.
Sessions, who recommended Comey's dismissal, had already recused himself from any investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, leaving any inquiry to be led by Rosenstein. The decision by Sessions, who was a top Trump surrogate, came in March after he first testified he had no contact with Russian officials during the campaign but then later clarified that he did twice meet with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak.
"Given that the Attorney General supposedly recused himself from the Russia investigation, he should not have played any role in removing the lead investigator from his duties," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a senior Judiciary Committee member, said in a statement. "Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein now has no choice but to appoint a Special Counsel. His integrity, and the integrity of the entire Justice Department, are at stake.
Comey was just four years into a ten-year term after being nominated by President Obama in 2013. His pick drew bipartisan praise and he was confirmed by the Senate overwhelmingly by a vote of 93-1. A former Republican, Comey served as the deputy attorney general for nearly two years under President George W. Bush.
Comey has repeatedly reiterated he planned to remain at the FBI, saying in March, "You're stuck with me for about 6 1/2 years."
Trump does have the authority to fire the FBI director, even without a reason, as Newsweek noted just last week.
This story has been updated.