Acting FBI Chief Defends Ousted Comey, Vows Independent Russia Investigation
Andrew McCabe shoots down Trump’s rationale for firing Comey, and defends the agency’s "significant" Russian counterintelligence investigation before a Senate panel.
Amid ongoing turmoil over the sudden ouster of the FBI chief James Comey, the bureau’s acting director vehemently defended the agency’s Russian counterintelligence investigation before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.
Andrew McCabe, who testified in place of the recently fired director, assured Vice Chairman Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), that he would “absolutely” notify Congress if the administration interferes in the ongoing investigation, which is looking at Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion with the Donald Trump campaign. “There has been no effort to impede our investigation to date,” he said. “You cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing….we are a fiercely independent bunch.”
Trump’s decision to fire Comey came just days after the director testified in an open hearing about the FBI’s Russia investigation, however. Comey testified at the hearing that he felt “nauseous” he might have influenced the election.
President Trump tasked his longtime security guard Keith Schiller on Tuesday evening with hand delivering a letter to FBI headquarters informing Comey, who was traveling for a recruitment conference, that he was fired effective immediately. The ostensible reason was his handling of the FBI’s investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server.
The termination touched off a political firestorm, particularly because the White House failed to notify the congressional leadership that oversees intelligence matters that the FBI director was about to be fired. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a former member of Trump’s transition team, said the timing of the announcement “troubled” him.
The White House has argued Comey’s firing had nothing to do with the Russia probe, while simultaneously suggesting the inquiry was going nowhere and should be abandoned. Press reports indicate the investigation was ramping up, however, and Comey had been having daily check-ins on its progress and approached the Justice Department for additional resources, specifically prosecutors, to work on the probe.
While McCabe refused to comment on the substance of Comey’s meetings with the president or the Justice Department, he directly challenged the contention that Comey had been doing a bad job and the FBI’s rank-and-file were demoralized. “I hold Director Comey in the absolute highest regard,” McCabe said. “It has been the greatest privilege and honor of my professional life to work with him. Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.”
Though President Trump repeatedly thanked Comey in his termination letter for letting him know he was not a direct target of the investigation into his network, McCabe told the committee that it is not common practice for the FBI to notify targets of its investigation.
Appearing Thursday on NBC, the president said that he had spoken with Comey three times, during two phone calls and one dinner, and the then FBI director told him he was not under investigation.
McCabe also said he had not spoken with the White House or Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the investigation since Comey was fired—only Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who he confirmed is directly in charge of the ongoing counterintelligence investigation.
Midway through the hearing, the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein arrived to meet with Chairman Burr and Vice Chairman Warner, who abruptly left. However, Burr insisted that the meeting with Rosenstein, requested by the Justice Department, was scheduled entirely for the purposes of “deconfliction” between the Senate’s investigation and the parallel probe at the Justice Department.
“There was acknowledgement and understanding of the need for us to pick up the phone and share with them what we were likely to do, and get immediate clearance on whether that would interfere with the investigation,” Burr told reporters outside the secure Senate briefing room where the intelligence committee was due to meet with intelligence chiefs in a classified setting that afternoon.
Burr echoed McCabe’s defense of Comey, and his support from within the bureau. “The lion’s share of FBI employees respect the former director,” he said. He told reporters he had not yet received a response from Comey about appearing before the Committee in a closed session next Tuesday.
Warner said he told Rosenstein that he was disappointed in the deputy attorney general’s role in Comey’s firing, and that he wanted an independent counsel to look into the Trump campaign’s interactions with the Russians. He said Rosenstein was taking that request, which Burr has not expressed support for, “under advisement.”
Rosenstein’s letter, published alongside the White House press release announcing th FBI director’s termination, blasted Comey’s public handling of the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server. Rosenstein has been reportedly frustrated with the way his role in Comey’s firing was portrayed, even threatening to quit.
Rosenstein exited the meeting in the opposite direction of Burr and Warner, declining to answer most press questions—though he did say he was “not quitting.”
FP staff writer Elias Gross contributed to this article.
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