The ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the US election took a fresh turn on Monday after the deputy director of the FBI announced that he was stepping down.
Andrew McCabe – who has consistently raised the ire of US president Donald Trump – announced that he was retiring with immediate effect, around two months before he was expected to retire.
The surprise decision could indicate the pressure the second-in-command at the FBI was facing as Republican criticism of the Russia investigation intensifies.
The president himself has consistently singled out Mr McCabe, accusing him of pro-Clinton bias. "How can FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, the man in charge, along with leakin' James Comey, of the Phony Hillary Clinton investigation (including her 33,000 illegally deleted emails) be given $700,000 for wife's campaign by Clinton Puppets during investigation?" he tweeted last month.
Mr Trump was referring to Mr McCabe's wife, who ran as a Democratic candidate in the Virginia state elections, receiving money from a political fund with links to Hillary Clinton.
But the White House rejected allegations of interference. "The president wasn't part of this decision-making process," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said as news of the resignation emerged.
She said that the White House had been “fully co-operative and will continue to be fully co-operative” with Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the election, noting that the administration had provided 20 witnesses and “tens of thousands of pages of documents” to the special counsel.
“We have done everything we can to be fully transparent,” she said, adding that she believed most Americans were not interested in the investigation.
Attacks on the credibility of the FBI and the justice department from Trump allies have intensified in recent weeks. In particular, Trump supporters have seized on the controversy over anti-Trump text messages exchanged by two FBI officials working on the Russia probe who embarked on an extra-marital affair.
Suspicions of pro-Democratic bias grew after it emerged that five months’ worth of text messages between the pair were lost, though the FBI has since recovered them.
It is not clear if Mr McCabe's early departure is connected to a separate but related controversy on Capitol Hill over the possible release of a controversial memo. The House intelligence committee is debating whether to release a memo which reportedly alleges that deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein failed to adequately explain to a judge why he wanted to extend FBI surveillance of Carter Page, a former adviser to the Trump administration.
Some prominent Republicans, including the head of the House intelligence committee Devin Nunes, believe that the department of justice failed to inform the judge that they were relying in part on a disputed dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, which had been financed by Democrats.
The department of justice has urged the committee not to release the memo, arguing that it contains sensitive and classified information. The House intelligence committee was due to discuss the matter later on Monday.
Mr McCabe, a long-time FBI agent, was appointed as the agency's deputy director under former FBI director James Comey in 2016, becoming acting FBI director after Mr Comey was fired by Mr Trump in May. The 49-year-old returned to his role as deputy director when Christopher Wray was appointed by Mr Trump as Mr Comey's successor.
There have been signs in recent weeks that the ongoing Russia investigation is gathering pace. Mr Mueller – himself a former FBI director – has interviewed several current and former members of Mr Trump's circle, including most recently attorney general Jeff Sessions.