WASHINGTON — In a reversal that further roiled Washington politics, President Trump revealed on Thursday he planned to fire FBI Director James Comey even before meeting with top-ranking Justice Department officials and soliciting their recommendations on his performance.
Calling Comey a "showboat" and "grandstander" who led the agency into turmoil, Trump said in an interview with NBC's Lester Holt, "I was going to fire regardless of (their) recommendation."
That contradicts the White House's assertions — and the widely-disseminated termination letter Trump sent Comey — that the dismissal was based on the recommendations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
In documents released by the White House, the Justice Department's leadership excoriated Comey's handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. In particular, they lambasted his unusual decision to hold a press conference in July announcing he would not charge the Democratic candidate — only to later publicly announce he was reopening the probe, just 11 days before the November election.
While that was the stated reason the White House gave for Comey's firing up until the NBC interview, Trump's latest comments raised even more questions about his decision to fire the FBI director who was running an investigation into possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russians seeking to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Democrats have already decried the timing of Comey's firing as a way to short-circuit the ongoing counterintelligence probe.
If Trump had already made the decision to fire Comey regardless of the Justice Department's opinions, questioned Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who serves on the Judiciary Committee — which is investigating Russia's influence on the election — then "why did he ask Rosenstein for a memo?”
The concern – and confusion – about the timing and reasons for why Trump fired Comey was shared by lawmakers from both parties. “He has that power, but that is inconsistent with what they said,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
In the NBC interview, Trump went on to attack Comey personally, using terms not usually directed at senior law enforcement officials, let alone a career prosecutor who held top Justice Department posts in the George W. Bush administration before being appointed FBI director by President Barack Obama in 2013.
"Look he's a show boat, he's a grand stander, the FBI has been in turmoil," Trump said of Comey. "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."
Acknowledging there are always ongoing investigations, Trump told NBC that "there's no good time" to fire an FBI director.
He also later expressed his displeasure with the attention now being paid to the Russia probe. "Russia must be laughing up their sleeves watching as the U.S. tears itself apart over a Democrat EXCUSE for losing the election," he tweeted.
Trump also repeated his claim that Comey told him — three times — he was not under investigation. Those conversations, he said, took place twice over the phone, and once at a dinner that the president said Comey requested so that he could argue to keep his job.
“I actually asked him," Trump said. "I said, 'If it's possible, would you let me know am I under investigation?' (Comey) said, 'You are not under investigation.'"
But Andrew McCabe, the acting FBI director, would not confirm those exchanges to a Senate hearing earlier on Thursday. McCabe said he was not in a position to comment on whether such communications occurred, but when pressed, added that FBI leaders providing assurances about the targets of ongoing investigations would not be "standard practice."
However, at a separate Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, strongly suggested that Comey did recently tell him that Trump was not a target of the FBI's inquiry, even though he could not reveal details of the classified briefing. "But I will say this: Shortly after Director Comey briefed us, I tweeted that he should be transparent," Grassley continued. "Now Mr. Comey is no longer the FBI director, but the FBI ... should confirm to the public whether it is or is not investigating the President. Because it has failed to make this clear, speculation has run rampant."
Even without Comey, the FBI investigation will continue, McCabe made clear on Thursday. His removal has not impeded the bureau's ongoing inquiry into possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government, McCabe told the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Simply put, you cannot not stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing."
McCabe also said the Russia inquiry represented "a highly significant'' aspect of the bureau's work, disputing recent White House assertions that it was a small and relatively unimportant part of the FBI's mission.
For their part, Trump and other White House officials – all of whom have denied any links to Russian hackers – said they hope Comey's departure will actually hasten the end of the investigation. "We want this to come to its conclusion," White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said. "We want it to come to its conclusion with integrity. And we think that we've actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen."
Sanders also said there have been "some misperceptions" about Trump's meeting Monday with the attorney general, Sessions, and his deputy, Rosenstein.
"The president over the last several months lost confidence in Director Comey," she said, and became "strongly inclined to remove him" after his performance at a Senate hearing last week.
At that hearing, Comey told lawmakers at that hearing that the thought his decisions in the Clinton probe may have influenced last year's election election made him "mildly nauseous."
"On Monday, the president met with the attorney general and the deputy attorney general and they discussed reasons for removing the director," Sanders said, and Sessions and Rosenstein put their recommendations on paper.
Sanders continued to attack Democrats who in the past called for Comey's ouster because of his handling of the Clinton administration, but attacked Trump when he actually did so. "If we want to talk about contradicting statements, and people that were maybe in the dark — how about the Democrats?"
On Capitol Hill, members of both parties rejected Trump’s scathing assessment of Comey in the NBC interview.
“Director Comey is the most ethical, upstanding individual I’ve had the pleasure to work with,’’ said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the panel’s top Democrat, said: “I’m offended by the president’s comments today.’’
And McCabe, the acting FBI director, contradicted the White House's assertions that Comey had lost the confidence of the bureau due to his handling of the Clinton probe. McCabe told Congress that Comey had actually enjoyed broad support within the ranks of the FBI before his dismissal.
“The vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey,” McCabe told the Senate intelligence committee. Agents' support for the former director continues "to this day," he added.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson, Maureen Groppe, Eliza Collins