President Trump's abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday sent shockwaves through Washington, DC — from Capitol Hill to the White House itself — where few people were given a heads-up before the president's decision became public.
Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, got the news while looking down at his iPhone during a meeting. Sen. Marco Rubio was presiding over the Senate Tuesday evening when he found out about Comey's firing through the Senate parliamentarian. And a senior FBI official in DC heard about his boss’s dismissal when he got a push alert from the New York Times on his phone.
"It was a surprise," Cornyn said, adding that Comey had been at the center of controversy both among Democrats and Republicans at different times.
At the FBI, too, Trump’s decision was met with shock. "Nobody saw this coming or had any warning this was coming down the chain today,” said an official who spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition of anonymity. “We have no idea what is going on,” he said, adding the bureau was in chaos following the news.
Under Comey’s leadership, the FBI had been investigating the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia during the 2016 election. His firing days before he was expected to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the body also looking into Russian interference during the election, spurred outcry from Democrats and some tepid concern from at least three GOP senators — Bob Corker, Richard Burr, and John McCain — about the timing of the firing. Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is leading the investigation in the Senate.
“I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination,” Burr said in a statement.
At the White House, Trump staffers appeared tight and on edge following the announcement. It appears that plans of the firing were kept within a small circle before it was made public. When asked if the president still had confidence in Comey earlier in the day, press secretary Sean Spicer deflected, telling reporters he’d need to speak with Trump about it. There was some talk that Spicer might update reporters on the Comey firing, an official curtly said that was just a rumor, and then a spokesperson said the administration would have nothing more for the day.
In documents released by the White House, the administration cites Comey's handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails as the reasoning behind the firing.
And a source close to the administration said they were happy to see Comey go, sticking to the administration line that he “utterly mishandled” the Clinton investigation and calling him a “politicized buffoon,” but acknowledged that “with this timing you’re almost inviting an uproar.”
A 2016 Trump surrogate said that during the campaign they wanted to criticize Comey on air but were told not to.
“I wanted to tee off on him but the campaign at that time was very reticent,” the source said. “They said ‘don’t criticize him, don’t make it personal.’ In some ways they were exonerated in that strategy.”
Only a small group of lawmakers were made aware of Trump’s decision minutes before it became public. They include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member on the committee responsible for replacing Comey.
"There was no heads-up; this took everyone by surprise,” said Rep. Peter King in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News after learning of Trump's decision.
"I was with Comey on Thursday at the Intelligence Committee, and he was talking about doing things well into the future, so I don’t think he had any idea either," said King, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
A Democratic staffer, whose boss was not informed, told BuzzFeed News in a series of text messages that there were "Lots of dropped jaws and shaking heads. We watched the news together and were all on our phones reading tweets aloud. [The senator] was pretty shocked."
"We also thought it was pretty crazy that Trump mentioned the investigation in his letter. Like whaaaa???" the staffer said.
Schumer, who received a call from the president Tuesday afternoon, said in a hastily organized press conference, “I told the president, ‘Mr. President, with all due respect, you are making a big mistake.’”
Agencies within the administration were also reeling from Comey’s dismissal. The State Department does not comment on personnel issues related to other US agencies, and several officials declined to offer a reaction. But one official told BuzzFeed News the development was clearly troubling. "Not much [to offer] from my point of view as a State Department employee," said the official. "From a citizen: Holy fuck."
Officials at the Pentagon were stunned by the news as well. There was also a sense of foreboding that similar sudden change could befall their agency or department.
"I need time to process this," one official said.
And the source close to the administration said that while Trump loves fighting, the timing of the Comey firing may have been a mistake.
“He welcomes the fight with the media but at times he picks fights he doesn’t need to pick,” the source said. “What would be the harm in waiting two months with Russia out of the news?”
Emma Loop, Sheera Frenkel, John Hudson, Kate Nocera, Ema O'Connor, and Nancy Youssef contributed reporting.