Adding yet another twist to a shifting White House narrative, President Trump said Thursday that he had decided to fire FBI Director James B. Comey regardless of whether the Justice Department recommended it, calling the ousted director “a showboat” and “a grandstander.”
Trump’s comments, which contradicted previous White House statements, further fueled the political and legal furor in Washington over his unceremonious sacking of Comey, who was leading an expanding FBI investigation into whether Trump’s advisors cooperated with Russian intelligence agents during the presidential campaign last year.
In a bipartisan move that highlighted the mounting concern on Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) invited Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein to brief all senators early next week on Comey’s dismissal.
Similarly, both parties’ leaders on the House Intelligence Committee, Reps. K. Michael Conaway (R-Texas) and Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), warned in a statement that their panel “will be conducting rigorous oversight to ensure that the FBI's own investigation is not impeded or interfered with in any way.”
The tumult overshadowed the White House and Congress for a third day in what appeared the most serious crisis of Trump’s presidency so far. His aides scrambled to keep up with the president’s changing accounts, even as the acting FBI director separately rejected Trump’s claim that Comey’s tenure had left the bureau “in turmoil.”
Comey “enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does,” Andrew McCabe, a career FBI agent who became acting director after Comey’s abrupt ouster Tuesday, told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
McCabe testified at an annual Senate hearing that reviews security threats around the globe. It instead featured extensive questioning about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the FBI investigation into possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and Moscow, and Comey’s dismissal.
McCabe said the FBI would continue to vigorously pursue the Russia investigation and would inform the committee if agents faced political interference from the White House.
“You cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing,” he said.
In an interview with Lester Holt of NBC News, Trump contradicted a statement released by the White House on Tuesday that said he had fired Comey “based on the clear recommendations” of Rosenstein and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions.
“I was going to fire regardless of recommendation,” Trump said Thursday, repeating his intention a moment later.
Over the last two days, White House officials repeatedly had said Trump did not decide to sack Comey until after he met with Sessions and Rosenstein in the Oval Office on Monday.
At that meeting, Trump complained about Comey and asked the two top Justice Department officials for their opinions – then asked for them in writing. On Tuesday, the White House pointed in particular to Rosenstein’s response, a three-page memo that harshly criticized Comey’s public statements about the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices.
But Rosenstein pushed to correct that narrative, resulting in a revised White House statement late Wednesday that made clear Trump already had been considering firing Comey. The Justice Department denied reports that Rosenstein threatened to resign over the dispute.
In his NBC interview, Trump seemed far more outraged by Comey’s recent testimony to Congress than his criticism last year of Clinton’s email practices, which Trump had lauded at the time. The president said Thursday that Comey’s penchant for publicity had damaged the bureau.
“Look, he’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil,” Trump told Holt. “You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that.”
In testimony to two congressional committees since March, Comey confirmed that the FBI was conducting a counter-intelligence investigation aimed at some of Trump’s aides, forcefully rejected Trump’s claims that President Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower, and said he was “mildly nauseous” at the thought his actions affected the election outcome.
Trump also described how he repeatedly pressed Comey for assurances he was not a target of the FBI investigation. While not illegal, it’s highly unusual for a sitting president to seek details on an ongoing criminal inquiry because of policies prohibiting political interference in FBI cases.
Trump said Comey told him he was not under investigation during a dinner at the White House after the inauguration. He said Comey asked to stay on as FBI director.
“And I said I’ll consider and we’ll see what happens,” Trump said. “But we had a very nice dinner. And at that time he told me, ‘You are not under investigation.’”
Trump distanced himself from those who worked for his presidential campaign, however. The FBI has interviewed at least two of his former advisors, and a grand jury in Virginia has issued subpoenas for documents.
“Well, all I can tell you is … I know that I’m not under investigation,” Trump said. “Me. Personally. I’m not talking about campaigns. I’m not talking about anything else. I’m not under investigation.”
Trump said he was not trying to stop the Russia investigation; he only wanted to speed it up.
“This Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story; it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won,” he said.
McCabe, who was Comey’s deputy, declined to confirm those conversations at the Senate hearing. But he said it is not standard FBI practice to inform subjects if they are under investigation. He also said it was unusual for someone not involved in a crime to ask the question.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House deputy press secretary, said Trump did nothing wrong by asking about the investigation while Comey was asking to keep his job. “I don't see that as a conflict of interest,” she said.
She dismissed questions about the shifting White House stories of the firing and said new leadership was needed at the FBI, partly to bring the Russia investigation to a swift close. “I don’t think that, you know, the back-and-forth makes that much difference,” she said.
McCabe took issue with reports that Comey asked for additional resources for the Russia inquiry last week, saying that he was unaware of such a request and that the investigation had “adequate resources.”
“It is my opinion and belief that the FBI will continue to pursue this investigation completely and vigorously,” he said.
But he also took pains to emphasize the bureau’s independence, vowing that he would not update the White House on the progress of the investigation.
A day after Sanders called the FBI’s counter-intelligence investigation “probably one of the smallest things that they’ve got going on their plate,” McCabe disagreed, calling it “a highly significant investigation.”
Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.