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Acting FBI director defends Comey and insists his firing won’t hobble the Russia investigation

<p>Andrew McCabe, right, makes a rare public appearance in 2015. With him is Dana J. Boente, the U.S
Andrew McCabe, right, makes a rare public appearance in 2015. With him is Dana J. Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.
(Jennifer Hill / FBI)

Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe defended James B. Comey’s integrity and performance Thursday, distancing himself from White House claims that the ousted FBI director had damaged morale at the bureau.

McCabe’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee implicitly rebutted assertions by President Trump earlier Thursday that Comey’s tenure had left the FBI “in turmoil.”

He also appeared to challenge his boss, Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, who wrote in a letter that the White House initially cited to justify Comey’s firing that the director made “serious mistakes” that had damaged morale at the FBI.

Comey “enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does,” said McCabe, a career FBI agent who became acting director by statute after Trump fired Comey without warning on Tuesday.

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“I have the highest respect for his considerable abilities and his integrity, and it has been the greatest privilege and honor of my professional life to work with him,” said McCabe, who was Comey’s deputy.

McCabe was a last-minute substitute for Comey at the Senate hearing, which was supposed to bring together the heads of the major intelligence agencies to outline security threats from around the globe, an annual report mandated by Congress.

The hearing instead featured extensive questioning of McCabe about the FBI’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and Moscow and Comey’s firing.

McCabe, who is a candidate to take over as interim FBI director, treaded carefully during the two-hour hearing, backing parts of the White House account of Comey’s ouster and at times contradicting it.

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Asked by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M) whether Comey had lost the confidence of the FBI rank and file, he replied, “No, sir, that is not accurate.”

He conceded that some FBI employees were angry at Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State. Last July, Comey announced that although he believed Clinton was “extremely careless” in handling classified emails, the FBI would not recommend criminal charges.

“There were folks within our agency who were very frustrated about the outcome of the Hillary Clinton case, and some of them were very vocal about that,” McCabe said.

Comey sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 28, 11 days before the election, saying the bureau had recovered additional emails in an unrelated case and was reopening its Clinton investigation. That probe was closed, again without recommending charges, two days before the election.

McCabe took issue with reports that Comey had asked for additional resources for the Russia investigation 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 FBI’s independence from the White House, vowing that he would not update the White House on the progress of the case.

A day after a White House spokeswoman called the FBI’s Russia investigation “probably one of the smallest things that they’ve got going on their plate,’ McCabe disagreed, calling it “a highly significant investigation.”

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He said he had spoken to Trump earlier this week, but not about the Russia probe.

Democrats warned that Comey’s firing suggested that Trump was trying to shut down the investigation.

“It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the presidential decision to remove Director Comey is related to this investigation, and that is truly unacceptable,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the committee.

But McCabe assured lawmakers he had seen “no effort to impede our investigation to date.” He promised to inform the committee if such an attempt occurred.

McCabe largely rebuffed lawmakers who tried to pry details about the investigation from him.

Asked by Sen. Richard Burr, (R-N.C.), the committee chairman, if he ever heard Comey tell Trump that he was not a subject of the investigation, as Trump has claimed, McCabe declined to answer.

“I can’t comment on any conversations the director may have had with the president,” he said.

But when pressed by Sen. Susan Collins, (R-Maine) whether it was “standard practice” to inform someone they are not the subject of a probe,” McCabe replied, “It is not.”

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He also conceded it was unusual for someone not involved in a crime to ask whether they were under investigation.

Also testifying at the hearing were Daniel R. Coats, director of National Intelligence; Michael Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency; Adm. Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency; Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency; and Robert Cardillo, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

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