Trump Says He Planned to Fire ‘Showboat’ FBI Chief All Along

by Toluse Olorunnipa, Nick Wadhams, and Terrence Dopp

President Donald Trump said he would have fired former FBI Director James Comey, who he called a “grandstander,” no matter the recommendation from two top Justice Department officials, contrasting with earlier White House assertions that he was merely accepting their advice.

“Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey,” Trump told NBC News in an interview broadcast in part on Thursday, two days after the FBI chief’s dismissal. “He’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil.”

Trump spoke as the FBI chief’s firing continued to reverberate in Washington. The bureau’s acting director, Andrew McCabe, contradicted White House claims that rank-and-file agents had lost confidence in Comey, offering a spirited defense of his former boss to lawmakers on Thursday. Through it all, White House officials were unable to shake the focus on an investigation of Russian interference in last year’s U.S. election.

The White House also is searching for Comey’s replacement and building a list that administration officials said includes Mike Rogers, a former Republican congressman and FBI agent from Michigan, and former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

Comey’s Assurances

Trump also said in the NBC interview that he asked Comey whether he personally was under investigation as part of a probe into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian agents. He said he was told by the FBI chief that he wasn’t. Those assurances came, according to Trump, on three separate occasions: over dinner at the White House when Comey told him he wanted to stay on as the agency director, during a phone call that Trump placed, and another time in a call from Comey to Trump.

“We had a very nice dinner and at that time he told me you’re not under investigation,” Trump said. In a subsequent phone call, Trump said, “I actually asked him. He said, ‘You are not under investigation.”’

Trump said he already knew he wasn’t. “When you’re under investigation, you’re given all sorts of documents,” he said.

When pressed about Comey’s March 20 revelation that the FBI was conducting a probe into any coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, the president made a distinction highlighting his claim that he wasn’t personally a target.

“I know that I’m not under investigation. Me, personally,” he said in the interview. “I’m not talking about campaigns, I’m not talking about anything else. I’m not under investigation.”

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters Thursday that it was appropriate for Trump to ask Comey about the ongoing investigation. She said legal scholars, who she didn’t name, saw no issue with the president’s inquiries. However, Republicans had widely criticized former President Bill Clinton after he met privately with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch while the investigation into his wife’s emails was under way.

Voter Views

Voters were about evenly divided on whether Trump did the right thing in firing Comey, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll, and their stance is heavily influenced by party identification.

Among all registered voters, 37 percent said Comey’s removal was appropriate and 34 percent viewed it as inappropriate, Twenty-nine percent said they didn’t know. Among Republicans, 63 percent backed Trump’s decision while two-thirds of Democrats said the firing was inappropriate.

The poll was conducted online May 9-11 among 1,731 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.

Trump’s remarks in the NBC interview about how the decision was made departed from explanations given by several White House officials earlier in the week.

‘Clear Recommendations’

Bottom of Form

The statement the White House issued Tuesday evening announcing Comey’s firing said Trump “acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.” Expanding on the sequence of events the next day, Sanders said that the Justice Department officials recommended Comey be dismissed during a meeting at the White House on Monday, after which Trump asked Rosenstein to put his advice on paper. Rosenstein and Sessions sent letters to the White House on Tuesday, and Trump fired Comey later that day.

In Comey’s dismissal letter, Trump wrote:

“I have received the attached letters from Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General of the United States recommending your dismissal as the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I have accepted their recommendation and you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.”

Rosenstein’s three-page letter faulted Comey for his handling of an investigation last year into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s email practices as secretary of state. While the letter didn’t explicitly call for Comey’s removal, Rosenstein wrote, “Having refused to admit his errors, the director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions.”

Sessions, in a single-paragraph letter accompanying his deputy’s assessment, wrote that based on his own evaluation and the arguments outlined by Rosenstein, “I recommend that you remove Director James B. Comey Jr. and identify an experienced and qualified individual to lead the great men and women of the FBI.”

Rosenstein’s Role

Rosenstein has been in his job for only about two weeks. Asked by a reporter at a briefing Wednesday whether the White House was asserting that the deputy attorney general “decided on his own, after being confirmed, to review Comey’s performance,” Sanders said: “Absolutely.”

Sanders on Thursday repeated her previous statements that Trump’s decision followed months of rising frustration with the FBI director, dating back to the election.

Comey had come under criticism from both Republicans and Democrats — for different reasons — for how he handled the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server.

But he also was leading the FBI investigation of potential collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russian government officials who sought to manipulate the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. Comey also publicly dismissed Trump’s claim that former President Barack Obama spied on him.

Agency Morale

Sanders sought to back up Trump’s statement that the FBI was in turmoil because of Comey’s leadership, saying she’d been contacted by numerous people in the agency who aired complaints about the former director.

A short time earlier, however, the new acting director told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Comey was held in “highest regard” within the bureau.

“Director Comey enjoyed broad support in the FBI and still does to this day,” McCabe said in response to a question.

McCabe was making his first public appearance as acting director. Although the panel was meeting as part of an annual review of threats to the U.S., Comey’s dismissal was the dominant topic. Many Democrats have questioned whether it was connected to the bureau’s continuing Russia probe. McCabe promised to tell lawmakers if he comes under any political pressure that interferes with the continuing investigation into possible links between Russia and associates of Trump.

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