ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A stunning announcement from the White House this evening - James Comey has been fired. The head of the FBI is out. President Trump wrote him a letter saying, in part, it is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust. NPR's Scott Horsley is with us now. And Scott, was there any warning that this was coming?
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Robert, I don't think so. I think you said it when you called this stunning. There was a little bit of a dustup in recent days over the former FBI director's testimony before a congressional committee in which he mischaracterized the forwarding of classified emails by Hillary Clinton's assistant Huma Abedin. And there was a question put to the White House press secretary today, Sean Spicer, does the president still have confidence in Director Comey? Spicer sort of ducked the question and said, well, I haven't asked him about it in the last 24 hours. But there was no hint that this was coming. And so this really was quite a surprise when this statement came out from the White House late this evening.
SIEGEL: Let's go into the explanation for Comey's dismissal. The White House provided some documentation for this.
HORSLEY: A lengthy letter from Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who - the subject line here is, restoring public confidence in the FBI. And this is a memo that he wrote for Attorney General Jeff Sessions really making the case like a prosecutor for Director Comey's wrongdoing. And this is all about his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server during the 2016 election.
And Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein says first Comey erred by having that famous press conference in July of 2016 where he went through the exhaustive investigation that had been conducted and basically said no prosecutor would bring a criminal case against Hillary Clinton. Rosenstein said it was wrong of the FBI director to come out and make that statement at that time.
SIEGEL: He said, at most, the director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors.
HORSLEY: He described this as usurping then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch's authority to decide what to do. Then he said Comey erred again in the very waning days of the campaign in October of 2016 when he notified Congress that the FBI had reopened the investigation or was pursuing new inquiries.
And then the straw that really seemed to break the camel's back was when Comey defended all of these decisions in his congressional testimony, saying that he was faced - you know, he was mildly nauseous by all of this but that he had no choice and that he would do it all again.
SIEGEL: The president - the White House also released President Trump's letter to Director Comey saying that he'd received these - this memo from the deputy attorney general and also the attorney general and it had led him to dismiss Comey. But - and there's a stunning line in the president's letter. It says, 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.
HORSLEY: Yeah, a little defensive paragraph inserted in the middle of a termination letter there. And I guess that is an acknowledgment by the president that obviously given all the suspicion about what was being investigated, the FBI's role in investigating Russian interference in the election last year and whether that would land at the president's doorstep, that there would clearly be suspicion surrounding this decision to fire the FBI director. And so Trump went out of his way...
HORSLEY: ...And in the very terminations letter to say, you've told me on three separate occasions that I'm not personally under investigation.
SIEGEL: And by doing so, we should say the president did not exceed his authority either.
SIEGEL: He is empowered to dismiss the the FBI director.
HORSLEY: That's right. He - the FBI director serves at the pleasure of the president.
SIEGEL: NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks.
HORSLEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.