WASHINGTON — Undermining previous White House explanations, President Donald Trump declared Thursday he had planned to fire FBI Director James Comey all along, regardless of whether top Justice Department officials recommended the stunning decision. His assertions came as Comey's temporary replacement joined in, contradicting other administration statements on the snowballing controversy.
In an interview with NBC News, Trump also said he'd asked Comey point-blank if he was under investigation, showing no concern about the prospect of interfering in an active FBI probe. He said Comey told him three times — at a dinner and in two phone calls — that he was not, as the bureau probed his presidential campaign's possible ties to Russia's election meddling.
"I said, 'If it's possible, would you let me know am I under investigation?' He said you are not under investigation," Trump told NBC.
The shifting accounts of the decision to fire Comey, whom Trump derided as a "showboat" and "grandstander," added to a mounting sense of uncertainty and chaos in the West Wing, as aides scrambled to get their stories straight and appease an angry president. Not even Vice President Mike Pence was spared the embarrassment of having told a version of events that was later discredited by Trump.
The White House's explanations continued to crumble throughout the day Thursday. On Capitol Hill, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe strongly disputed the White House's assertion that Comey had been fired in part because he had lost the confidence of the FBI's rank-and-file.
"That is not accurate," McCabe said. "Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day."
Unfazed, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted she had heard from "countless" members of the FBI who welcomed the president's decision.
McCabe also pointed out the remarkable nature of Trump's version of his conversations with Comey. McCabe told a Senate panel it was not "standard practice" to tell an individual whether they are or are not under investigation.
Previous presidents have made a public show of staying out of legal matters, so as not to appear to be injecting politics. Trump's comments demonstrated his striking deviation from that practice and scant concern for the appearance of FBI independence.
The ousted director himself is said to be confident that his own version of events will come out, possibly in an appearance before Congress, according to an associate who has been in touch with him since his firing Tuesday.
Trump and Comey's relationship was strained early on, in part because of the president's explosive and unsubstantiated claims that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. Comey found the allegations confounding, according to his associate, and wondered what to make of what he described as strange thoughts coming from his new boss.
The president was no kinder to Comey Thursday, calling him names and saying he'd left the FBI in "virtual turmoil." He said that while he received a scathing assessment of Comey's performance from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Monday, that memo was not a catalyst for his dramatic decision as the White House had said earlier.
"I was going to fire Comey," Trump said. "Regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey."
That's far different that the White House's initial account in the hours after Comey's firing. Multiple officials, including Pence, said the president was acting at the behest of Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.