WASHINGTON • US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions fired the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) former No. 2 official Andrew McCabe on Friday, two days before his retirement.
It prompted Mr McCabe to say he is being targeted because he is a crucial witness into whether President Donald Trump tried to obstruct the Russia investigation.
Mr Sessions, in a statement, said he felt justified in firing Mr McCabe after the Justice Department's internal watchdog found he leaked information to reporters and misled investigators about his actions.
"The FBI expects every employee to adhere to the highest standards of honesty, integrity and accountability," Mr Sessions said.
But Mr McCabe, who played a crucial role in the bureau's investigations of Mrs Hillary Clinton and Russia's interference in the 2016 US election, denied those claims and said he is facing retaliation from the Trump administration.
In a lengthy statement, Mr McCabe said he believes he is being politically targeted because he corroborated former FBI director James Comey's claims that Mr Trump tried to pressure him into killing the Russia probe.
I have terminated the employment of Andrew McCabe effective immediately. The decision was taken after an extensive and fair investigation. The FBI expects every employee to adhere to the highest standards of honesty, integrity and accountability.
US ATTORNEY-GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS, announcing in a statement his decision to fire Mr McCabe.
I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey. This attack on my credibility is one part of a larger effort... to taint the FBI, law enforcement and intelligence professionals more generally.
FORMER FBI DEPUTY DIRECTOR ANDREW MCCABE, in a statement after his sacking.
Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard-working men and women of the FBI - A great day for Democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!
US PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, in a tweet in response to news of Mr McCabe's sacking.
Mr Trump ousted Mr Comey last year and acknowledged in a televised interview that he fired Mr Comey over "this Russia thing".
Mr McCabe's dismissal came two days before his 50th birthday, when he would have been eligible to retire with his full pension.
The firing - which comes nine months after Mr Trump fired Mr Comey - puts Mr McCabe's pension in jeopardy. It is also likely to raise questions about whether Mr McCabe received an overly harsh punishment due to political pressure by the Republican President, who has blasted Mr McCabe on Twitter and called for his ouster.
"I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey," Mr McCabe said in his statement.
"This attack on my credibility is one part of a larger effort... to taint the FBI, law enforcement and intelligence professionals more generally."
Mr Trump posted a message on his Twitter account early yesterday, praising the action and blasting both Mr McCabe and Mr Comey.
He wrote: "Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard-working men and women of the FBI - A great day for Democracy.
"Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!"
Mr McCabe had stepped down from his position as FBI deputy director in January but remained on leave pending retirement.
His departure was triggered by a critical report from the Justice Department's inspector-general that eventually led the Office of Professional Responsibility to recommend he be fired.
The report, which has yet to be made public, says Mr McCabe misled investigators about his communications with a former Wall Street Journal reporter who was writing about Mr McCabe's role in probes tied to Mrs Clinton, including an investigation of the Clinton family's charitable foundation.
In his statement, Mr McCabe denied ever misleading investigators.
He added that the release of the inspector-general's report was "accelerated" after he testified behind closed doors before the US House Intelligence Committee, where he revealed he could back up Mr Comey's claims.
Mr Comey's firing has become central to questions about whether Mr Trump unlawfully sought to obstruct the Russia investigation.
Mr McCabe could potentially be a crucial witness in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.