An unabashed Donald Trump called for warmer US relations with Russia on Wednesday as his firing of FBI director James Comey sparked pressure from Democrats for an independent probe of his election campaign’s alleged ties to Moscow.
Mr Comey’s dismissal shook Washington, igniting the biggest crisis of Mr Trump’s presidency as opponents amplified allegations throughout the day that the president was seeking to frustrate the FBI probe.
Adding to the drama late on Wednesday, the Senate intelligence committee subpoenaed Mike Flynn, Mr Trump’s sacked national security adviser, for documents that he had failed to provide to its own Russia investigation.
The events heralded a new period of turmoil in which Russia-related controversies risk monopolising the capital’s attention at the expense of policy priorities such as tax and healthcare reform.
On Wednesday Mr Trump was shown warmly greeting foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and ambassador Sergei Kislyak in photographs distributed by Russia’s foreign ministry.
US reporters were not invited to witness the meeting, but the White House, undeterred by controversy, released a statement saying Mr Trump had “emphasised his desire to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia”.
With Mr Lavrov the president said he had a “very, very good meeting” as he spoke in a brief Oval Office appearance alongside Henry Kissinger, the former national security adviser and secretary of state to Richard Nixon who has become a Trump adviser.
The White House insisted Mr Comey’s sacking was unrelated to Russia, instead citing Mr Comey’s handling of an FBI probe into whether Hillary Clinton improperly used a personal email server.
Democrats said that was hard to believe as they united behind calls for a special prosecutor to take charge of the probe into Russia ties. Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, said failure to take that step would fuel speculation of a cover-up.
Their calls were quickly rebuffed by Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, whose stance influences many lawmakers. Several senior Republicans said they were “troubled” by the removal of Mr Comey, but most stopped short of outright criticism of the president.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, said Mr Trump had been considering dismissing Mr Comey “since the day he was elected”, even though the White House said earlier this month the president had confidence in him.
Mr Comey’s testimony to Congress last week had left the president minded to remove him, the White House added in an official timeline circulated later, which said that on Monday Mr Trump discussed reasons for doing so on with attorney-general Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein, his deputy.
The FBI’s new acting director, Andrew McCabe, met Mr Trump at the White House on Wednesday afternoon and is expected to appear at a Senate intelligence committee on Thursday.
John McCain, the Arizona senator and 2008 Republican presidential candidate, said the dismissal underscored the need for a special congressional committee, a message echoed by Lindsey Graham, the Republican South Carolina senator, who insisted Mr Comey’s firing would not stop the investigation into the Russian case.
Democrats voiced harsher criticism. “Given that subpoenas were issued to Trump’s people regarding Flynn hours before this, it’s shocking because Trump is betting the farm,” said Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.
“But it’s also shocking because it’s a Nixonesque indication that corruption is likely, and I think he [Trump] is letting himself in for an enormous problem,” he added.
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, said the White House could only be held accountable if senior Republicans broke ranks to join Democratic calls for a special prosecutor. “The Democrats are united, but it’s going to take Republicans to put the country above Trump,” he said.
It would fall to Mr Rosenstein, the Department of Justice’s number two official, to appoint a special prosector, as Mr Sessions has recused himself from Russia-related investigations.
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Taking to Twitter on Wednesday, Mr Trump repeated the charge that the FBI director had lost the confidence of many in Washington. “Dems have been complaining for months & months about Dir. Comey. Now that he has been fired they PRETEND to be aggrieved. Phony hypocrites!” he wrote.
Mr Comey, a Republican who was appointed by Barack Obama, had a golden reputation until the 2016 election when he sparked controversy over his handling of the investigation into Mrs Clinton’s use of her private email server.
Mrs Clinton said last week that Mr Comey’s revelation days before the November 8 vote that he had reopened a probe into her email use cost her the presidency. “If the election had been on October 27, I would be your president,” she said.
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo