WASHINGTON — President Trump made his first in-depth public comments about his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey in an interview with “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt on Thursday. In the conversation, Trump claimed he made the decision because Comey was a “grandstander” who left the FBI in “turmoil.” The president’s comments contradicted his earlier statements, as well as assertions by White House staff and Vice President Mike Pence, that Comey was fired at the instigation of Justice Department officials for his mishandling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
Trump also repeated his claim that the FBI director assured him he is not being investigated.
“Look, he’s a showboat. He’s a grandstander,” Trump said of Comey, adding, “The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.”
Trump sent Comey a letter relieving him of duty on Tuesday. In that letter, Trump suggested he decided to fire Comey after receiving recommendations from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. White House staff and Pence said the decision followed Rosenstein’s recommendation. But in his interview with Holt, Trump described the firing as “my decision” and said he was “going to fire regardless of recommendation.”
“I was going to fire Comey,” Trump said. “There’s no good time to do it, by the way.”
Pressed on the apparent contradiction at Thursday’s White House press briefing, principal White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Rosenstein’s recommendation “solidified” Trump’s determination to get rid of Comey.
A letter by Comey to congressional leaders just before the election, saying he was reopening the investigation into Clinton’s handling of classified emails, is blamed by many Democrats for her loss. Trump and his allies praised Comey at the time.
Comey’s firing has drawn criticism because the FBI is conducting an ongoing investigation into Russian interference in last year’s presidential race and contacts between Moscow and Trump’s campaign team.
According to the Washington Post, Rosenstein objected to the assertion that he initiated the conversation about firing Comey and even threatened to resign. Trump praised Rosenstein in the interview with Holt.
“He made a recommendation. He’s highly respected, very good guy, very smart guy, and the Democrats like him, the Republicans like him,” Trump said of Rosenstein. “He made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”
Trump’s letter to Comey thanked the FBI director for “informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.” During the interview with Holt, Trump stood by his claim that Comey assured him he wasn’t being investigated when they ate a meal together soon after Trump took office.
“I had a dinner with him. He wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on. We had a very nice dinner at the White House very early on,” Trump said, later adding, “I think he asked for the dinner and he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said, ‘We’ll consider, we’ll see what happens.’ But we had a very nice dinner and, at that time, he told me, ‘You are not under investigation.’ Which I knew anyway.”
Trump went on to describe other occasions when he claimed Comey assured him he was not being investigated. The president also cited other reasons he is confident he is not the target of any probe.
“First of all, when you’re under investigation, you’re given all sorts of documents and everything. I knew I wasn’t under — and I heard it was stated at the committee, at some committee level, that I wasn’t,” Trump said. “Then, during a phone call he said it, and then during another phone call he said it. So he said it once at dinner and then he said it twice during phone calls.”
Trump said he directly asked Comey if he was under investigation.
“In one case I called him and in one case he called me,” said Trump. “I actually asked him, yes, I said, ‘If it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation?’ He said, ‘You are not under investigation.’”
Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe testified about Comey’s firing during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday. McCabe said he couldn’t comment on any conversations Comey may or may not have had with the president, but he said it would not be standard procedure for the FBI to inform someone he was not the subject of an ongoing investigation.
Sanders claimed morale was down at the FBI under Comey’s leadership and said during her briefings this week that the Russia probe is “probably one of the smallest things” on the bureau’s radar. In his Senate testimony, McCabe contradicted both of these claims. He described the Russia investigation as highly significant and refuted the notion that rank-and-file members of the FBI were unhappy with Comey’s leadership.
“I can tell you also that Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day,” McCabe said, adding, “I can confidently tell you that the majority, the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey.”
NBC aired a brief excerpt of Holt’s interview with Trump shortly after the conversation took place on Thursday. The network plans to air more of the interview on “NBC Nightly News With Lester Holt” Thursday evening and on Friday morning’s episode of “Today.”