US President Donald Trump said Thursday he was thinking of “this Russian thing” when he decided to fire FBI Director James Comey, who had been leading the investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Speaking to NBC News, Trump said “when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won’.”
His statement undercuts those made by other administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, who both said the decision to fire Comey was based on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and attorney general.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s reasoning for Comey’s dismissal focused on his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server, namely his decision to recommend no charges be filed and the news conference he held to explain his rationale.
Russia probe needs to be ‘done properly’
Comey’s firing sent shockwaves through Washington, with some critics of Trump raising parallels to Watergate-era firings and suggesting Comey was getting too close to the White House with the Russia probe.
That claim has been dismissed by administration officials and though, in the same interview, Trump said he had no intention of trying to stop or hinder the FBI’s Russia probe, his comments have given fresh ammunition to his critics.
The probe, Trump said, needs “to be absolutely done properly.”
“I want that to be so strong and so good,” he said. “I want to get to the bottom. If Russia hacked, if Russia did anything having to do with our election, I want to know about it.” The President has long insisted the investigation will not discover any wrongdoing.
He admitted however that Comey’s removal could lengthen the investigation, contradicting White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said Wednesday the FBI Director’s removal would help the probe “come to its conclusion with integrity.”
In a letter to Comey announcing his firing Tuesday, Trump said the FBI director had reassured him several times he was not under investigation as part of the Russia probe.
Trump’s letter firing FBI Director James Comey
Trump wrote, “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau. It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement issue.”
Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe on Thursday rejected Trump’s claims Comey had lost confidence within the bureau. Speaking to lawmakers, McCabe said Comey had “broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.”
US officials — including prominent GOP lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain — have said they were “troubled” by Trump’s abrupt firing of Comey during the Russia probe.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee told CNN, “I think that the firing was all about the Russia investigation.”
“He fired the top cop on that investigation, and I think no one believes this was about Hillary Clinton’s emails, I think it was all about the Russia case,” he added.
Many Democratic lawmakers are calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor to take Comey’s place in leading the investigation.
However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said “too much is at stake” to halt an investigation already in progress.
He said from the Senate floor Wednesday, a new investigation would “only serve to impede the current work being done to not only discover what the Russians may have done but also to let this body and the national security community develop counter measures.”