President Donald Trump on Thursday called ousted FBI chief James Comey a “showboat” and “grandstander,” but its acting leader contradicted the president and promised the agency’s probe into possible Trump campaign ties to Russia would proceed with vigor.
Trump, facing Democratic accusations that he fired Comey on Tuesday to hinder the FBI investigation into alleged meddling by Russia in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, said he would have taken the action even without a recommendation to do so by the two top Justice Department officials. That ran counter to previous administration explanations of Comey’s dismissal.
The Republican president also gave further details of his account that Comey informed him three times that he was not under investigation.
Trump’s personal attack on Comey seemed designed to underline that Comey’s dismissal was about his performance at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and not a probe that has hung over Trump’s presidency since he took office in January and threatens to overwhelm his policy priorities.
In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, testifying in place of Comey, promised to tell the panel of any White House meddling into the agency’s probe. Democrats have called for a special prosecutor to look into the Russia matter.
“He’s a showboat. He’s a grandstander,” Trump told NBC News in his first interview since firing Comey. “The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that, everybody knows that.”
The White House and Vice President Mike Pence have said Trump fired Comey on the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and No. 2 Justice Department official Rod Rosenstein.
On Thursday, Trump said: “I was going to fire Comey. My decision,” Trump said. “I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.”
Trump told NBC News he never pressured Comey into dropping the FBI probe, adding: “If Russia did anything, I want to know that.” Trump said there was no “collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians,” but added that “the Russians did not affect the vote.”
McCabe’s testimony contradicted Trump’s appraisal of turmoil at the FBI under Comey.
“I can tell you also that Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day,” McCabe said.
“I can tell you that I hold Director Comey in the absolute highest regard. I have the highest respect for his considerable abilities and his integrity,” McCabe added. “And it has been the greatest privilege and honor of my professional life to work with him.”
Trump will not visit FBI headquarters in Washington as expected after agency officials told the White House he would not be greeted warmly following his firing of Comey, MSNBC reported on Thursday.
“It is my opinion and belief that the FBI will continue to pursue this investigation vigorously and completely,” McCabe told the senators. He said there was no “crisis of confidence within the leadership of the FBI.”
Trump told NBC he had asked Comey once over dinner and twice by telephone whether he was under investigation in the Russia matter.
“I said: ‘If it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation?'” Trump told NBC. “He said: ‘You are not under investigation.'”
Trump said the dinner with Comey was at the White House and Comey wanted to discuss staying on as FBI chief. “We had a very nice dinner. And at that time, he told me: ‘You are not under investigation.'”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she believed it was not a conflict of interest for a president to ask the FBI chief such a question.
Comey has not publicly discussed any conversations he had with Trump.
McCabe testified it was not typical practice to tell people they were not a targets of an investigation.
The Republican chairman of the Senate panel, Richard Burr, asked McCabe whether he ever heard Comey tell Trump the president was not the subject of investigation. McCabe sidestepped the question, saying he could not comment on an ongoing probe.
In his letter firing Comey on Tuesday, Trump wrote: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an effort to disrupt the election that included hacking into Democratic Party emails and leaking them, with the aim of helping Trump.
Leaders of the U.S. intelligence agencies, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA chief Mike Pompeo, testified to the senators on Thursday that they agreed with that finding. Moscow has denied any such interference and the Trump administration denies allegations of collusion with Russia.
“For many people, including myself, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the president’s decision to remove Director Comey was related to this investigation, and that is truly unacceptable,” said the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Mark Warner.
The Trump administration has said Comey’s firing was unrelated to the Russia investigation. It said on Tuesday that Comey’s firing arose from his handling of an election-year FBI probe into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state.
“And while it’s clear to me now more than ever that an independent special counsel must be appointed, make no mistake our committee will get to the bottom of what happened during the 2016 presidential election,” Warner said.
Responding to Trump’s latest comments about Comey, Burr and Warner praised the ousted FBI chief’s integrity. Warner said he was offended at Trump’s remarks.
Former Republican Representative Mike Rogers is being considered as a candidate to replace Comey, a senior White House official said. The nominee must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.