WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Thursday that he had already decided to fire ousted FBI Director James Comey before Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote up a formal recommendation to do so.
“I was going to fire Comey,” Trump told NBC News’ Lester Holt in an interview. “Regardless of the recommendation I was going to fire Comey.”
The White House initially said Rosenstein’s memorandum to Attorney General Jeff Sessions prompted Trump to fire Comey, but Trump contradicted that account, saying he had already planned to do so and requested a memo to back up his decision.
Trump’s firing of Comey sent a wave of criticism the White House’s way, with Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill questioning the timing of the firing, which came as the FBI’s investigation into potential coordination between Trump campaign associates and Russia has heated up.
The White House initially pushed back on criticism of the firing by hanging Trump’s decision on the recommendation of Rosenstein, who was confirmed two weeks earlier on a broad bipartisan basis.
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday sought to align the White House’s version of events with Trump’s, clearing up the White House’s timeline by arguing the Rosenstein memo was the “final straw that pushed him” to fire Comey.
Sanders dodged questions about why even Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday that Trump decided to fire Comey because of Rosenstein’s memo.
“Nobody was in the dark,” she said. “Why are we arguing about the semantics?”
Trump also expanded on his claim that Comey told him three times that he was not under investigation, telling NBC that Comey told him “you are not under investigation” during a dinner the two had to discuss Comey’s future at the helm of the FBI.
“If it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation?” Trump said he asked Comey. “He said, ‘you are not under investigation.'”
While the White House insisted the firing had nothing to do with the FBI’s Russia investigation, Trump wrote in his letter informing Comey of this dismissal: “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”
Trump said Comey also confirmed in two separate phone calls that he was not personally under investigation.
Trump sharply criticized Comey in the interview as “a showboat” and “a grandstander” and argued that Comey had thrown the FBI into “turmoil.”
But the White House’s claims of turmoil have garnered widespread pushback from FBI officials, who insist the FBI has not faced the crisis of confidence the White House has depicted.
Andrew McCabe, the acting director of the FBI and Comey’s former deputy, insisted in testimony Thursday on Capitol Hill that Comey had “broad support” within the agency.
“The majority, the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep, positive connection to Director Comey,” McCabe said.
The White House’s initial attempt to hang Trump’s decision to fire Comey on Rosenstein made the newly-minted deputy attorney general unhappy, sources familiar with the matter told CNN on Thursday.
Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Flores insisted that Rosenstein did not threaten to resign over how the firing took place, contradicting a Washington Post report that made that claim.