By Mike Lillis - 05-10-17 10:08 AM EDT
President Trump's stunning decisionto fire James Comey on Tuesday has transformed the Democrats' prickly relationship with the former FBI director.
No longer hammering Comey as a treacherous partisan, the Democrats rushed to his defense, denouncing Trump's move in the harshest terms and suggesting the embattled Comey was among their chief allies in the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.
In a gush of statements, the Democrats accused Trump of political interference with the intent of dismantling a probe that's dogged the administration for months and frustrated the president's policy agenda. If the lawmakers had doubts about Comey's ability to conduct a credible review of the Trump-Kremlin connection, those sentiments have faded with the stroke of his firing.
"We know the FBI has been looking into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians - a very serious offense," Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Tuesday night.
"Were those investigations getting too close to home for the president?"
Scores of Democrats piled on, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) charging Trump with a "brazen" act that "raises the ghosts of some of the worst Executive Branch abuses."
"We cannot stand by and watch a coverup of the possible collusion with a hostile foreign power to undermine American democracy," she said in a statement.
Amplifying a chorus of Democratic statements, both Schumer and Pelosi urged Congress to create an independent, bipartisan panel to delve into the Russia inquiry - a step GOP leaders have refused to take. Comey's firing, the Democrats said, leaves them with little faith that his replacement will pursue the probe in any reputable form.
"Anyone who this President now appoints will have zero credibility to carry out an honest investigation," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee's subpanel on the Constitution.
The dash to defend Comey marks a shift for the Democrats, many of whom have questioned his integrity - or called for his scalp - since October, when he publicly renewed the FBI's investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of State.
That investigation uncovered no criminal wrongdoing, but Democrats blamed Comey for shifting the momentum of the presidential contest in favor of Trump just days before voters went to the polls.
"I do not have confidence in him any longer," Schumer told Bloomberg at the time.
Pelosi joined the wave of critics, accusing Comey of tossing "a Molotov cocktail" into the midst of a volatile election and suggesting he'd caved to political pressure in ways that might make him unfit to lead an independent FBI.
"It might just be too hot in there," Pelosi said on Election Night. "He obviously was feeling a lot of heat from the Republicans."
Trump's initial decision to keep Comey on board under the new administration stirred a new round of condemnation from Democrats, who wanted him replaced.
"James Comey needs to fade away into oblivion," Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in January. "He embarrassed this nation; he possibly influenced the outcome of a presidential election; and he should not hold any position of trust, whatsoever, in our government."
With Comey's ouster Tuesday, however, many Democrats are singing a different tune.
"I had my share of concerns over Mr. Comey's recent actions," said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, "but firing Mr. Comey at the very moment a grand jury was summoning witnesses on the Trump-Russia scandal suggests an agenda of obstruction and obfuscation from the highest levels of the Trump Administration."
Democrats' past criticism of Comey has not been overlooked by Trump, who took to Twitter Tuesday night to accuse Schumer, in particular, of hypocrisy.
"The Democrats have said some of the worst things about James Comey," he wrote, "including the fact that he should be fired, but now they play so sad!"
Schumer defended his position Tuesday night, emphasizing the need for an independent panel to launch a probe outside the administration.
"I never called on the president to fire Director Comey," he said. "I have a lot of questions about how he handled himself."
The Democrats' relationship with Comey has, for years, been a hot-and-cold affair.
Tapped by former President Barack Obama to head the FBI in 2013, Comey was something of a hero in the eyes of Democrats for his refusal to sanction the warrantless surveillance programs of former President George W. Bush. Comey also won the Democrats' praise last July, when he declined to recommend an indictment for Clinton in the State Department email scandal - a move that infuriated Republicans.
But his extension of the Clinton probe in October - and his subsequent defense of that decision - had led to deep feelings of distrust between Democrats and the man who, until Tuesday, was leading the Russia investigation.
"Nothing excuses the disparate way he handled those," Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said last week, referring to the seemingly different approaches Comey took in publicizing the Clinton and Trump investigations.
"I don't think in any way he justified both what he did and why he treated those investigations so differently."
With the White House vowing an immediate search for Comey's replacement, the Democrats may soon come to miss him.