The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s acting director has contradicted Donald Trump over the firing of James Comey, denying the ousted chief had lost the support of employees as he insisted the FBI’s Russia probe would not be knocked off course.
Andrew McCabe, the FBI acting director, also told the Senate intelligence committee that the probe into alleged collusion between Moscow and the Trump election campaign was “highly significant” as a senior Democrat accused Mr Trump of trying to obstruct investigators.
On Thursday, an irate Mr Trump doubled down on his claim that he had fired Mr Comey because of his performance, telling NBC: “He’s a showboat. He’s a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil . . . Everybody knows that.”
The atmosphere in Washington grew more feverish when the committee’s two top lawmakers broke off from the hearing for a previously unannounced meeting with Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney-general.
His visit to Capitol Hill followed reports that he had come close to resigning after White House officials had implied that the president fired Mr Comey on Mr Rosenstein’s recommendation. Mr Trump told NBC, however: “I was going to fire regardless of [his] recommendation.”
Mr McCabe’s testimony to the committee, on only his second day in the job, further challenged the White House account of why Mr Comey was terminated on Tuesday.
The White House said on Wednesday that Mr Comey had “lost the confidence” of rank-and-file FBI employees, but Mr McCabe said that was inaccurate. “I can confidently tell you that the majority — the vast majority — of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection with director Comey.”
Mr Trump’s decision to sack the man overseeing a Russian election interference investigation appeared designed to quell controversy over alleged ties between the president’s campaign and Moscow, but it has backfired by only intensifying scrutiny of the president’s motives.
Mr Trump said Mr Comey had told him he was not under investigation three times: once at “a very nice dinner at the White House” – arranged at Mr Comey’s request — and twice during two separate phone conversations.
Mr McCabe said the FBI’s investigation into potential ties between Trump associates and Moscow was continuing unimpeded, so far, despite Mr Comey’s dismissal.
“There has been no effort to impede our investigation to date. Simply put, you cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing our job,” he said. He vowed to inform the committee if the White House attempted to put political pressure on the FBI or on him personally over the agency’s probe.
Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, told the hearing the president had already hindered the search for the truth about the matter. “For many people, including myself, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the president’s decision to remove director Comey was related to [the FBI’s Russia] investigation. And that is unacceptable,” he said.
Mr Warner said the committee had planned to call Mr Comey to answer “a series of difficult questions” related to whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials.
“However, President Trump’s actions this week cost us an opportunity to get at the truth — at least for today,” he added.
Mr Comey had been due to appear before the committee on Thursday.
Mr McCabe, taking his place, told senators he was not at liberty to comment on whether Mr Comey had indeed told Mr Trump that the president was not under investigation — as the president had claimed in his letter publicly firing Mr Comey and reiterated to NBC.
It was “not standard practice” for the agency to inform an individual whether or not they were under investigation, he added.
Mr McCabe, CIA director Mike Pompeo, director of national intelligence Dan Coats, and National Security Agency director Mike Rogers all said they agreed with the intelligence committee’s assessment that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election.
FBI employees, meanwhile, were digesting a brief exit letter from Mr Comey, who wrote: “My hope is that you will continue to live our values and the mission of protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution.”
The dismissal of Mr Comey has shaken Washington, igniting the biggest crisis of Mr Trump’s presidency with opponents alleging that the president was seeking to frustrate the FBI probe.
These claims intensified after reports that Mr Comey had sought more resources from the US attorney-general’s office for its Russia investigation shortly before he was dismissed. Mr McCabe said the FBI had the resources it needed for the probe.
In Washington, reaction to Mr Trump’s actions has fallen largely on party lines, with Democrats demanding that the White House appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate possible connections between Russia and Trump associates, while Republicans have rebuffed such requests.