President Donald Trump called former FBI Director James Comey “a showboat” and “a grandstander” on Thursday, two days after abruptly firing him.
“The FBI has been in turmoil,” Trump said in an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt. “You know that, I know that, everybody knows that.”
But current acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who was Comey’s second-in-command, painted a very different picture while testifying Thursday in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI,” he said, “and still does to this day.”
Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the committee chairman, responded to Trump’s comments by saying, “I found [Comey] to be one of the most ethical, upright, straightforward individuals I’ve had the opportunity to work with.”
The contradicting portrayals of Comey raised further questions about Trump’s motivations for firing him. Was Comey unfit, as Trump alleges, or was this about the president’s growing frustration with the FBI’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government during the election?
Members of the administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, had argued that Trump merely accepted Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s assessment that Comey was no longer an effective leader. “When [Rosenstein] brought the recommendation to the president that the director of the FBI should be removed, President Trump provided the kind of strong and decisive leadership the American people have come to be accustomed from him,” Pence told reporters Wednesday morning.
But Trump contradicted that narrative on Thursday when he told NBC News that “regardless of the recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”
The president added that he asked Comey three times — once in person, twice on the phone — if he was under investigation. “I said ‘If it’s possible, will you let me know, am I under investigation?’ He said ‘You are not under investigation,’” Trump said. His account has not been confirmed and the FBI Director would not normally discuss an open investigation like that.
Still, Trump maintained, “I know I am not under investigation. Me, personally. I’m not talking about campaigns, I’m not talking about anything else.”
Trump’s personal attacks on Comey and changing explanations for his decision come in the midst of a firestorm of criticism from Democrats, the media, and even some members of his own party about Comey’s firing. Trump has reportedly fumed privately about negative media attention and criticism from Democrats who he thought would welcome Comey’s dismissal after he took the extraordinarily unusual step to speak out about the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email days before the election.
Democrats have not obliged, however. Instead, they’ve ramped up their calls for a special prosecutor to take over the Trump-Russia case — a decision that lies solely in the hands of Rosenstein. The deputy attorney general now finds himself in the crosshairs only two weeks after being confirmed by the Senate. The New York Times Editorial Board penned an open letter to Rosenstein criticizing his memo to Trump, and many Senate Democrats have said they now regret voting for him.
Rosenstein went to the Capitol Thursday to meet privately with the top ranking Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and discuss the events of this past week.