US president Donald Trump has insisted he would have fired FBI director James Comey even if the attorney general and his deputy had not recommended the move.
In his first extended comments on the decision, which has prompted major controversy in Washington, Mr Trump yesterday criticised Mr Comey, calling him "a showboater" and "a grandstander" who had created turmoil at the bureau.
The president's account of his decision-making process conflicted with that previously provided by his officials. The White House had said that Mr Trump acted only after attorney general Jeff Sessions and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein came to him to recommend Mr Comey's dismissal.
The letter informing Mr Comey of the decision, signed by Mr Trump, said he was acting on their recommendation. Vice-president Mike Pence had also said Mr Trump had been following advice of the justice department.
But in an interview with NBC News yesterday, Mr Trump said that Mr Rosenstein’s opinion had not mattered.
“I was going to fire regardless of recommendation,” he said.
Sources said the comments may have been aimed at reassuring Mr Rosenstein, who was reportedly upset at the original White House narrative that made it appear the firing was done at his instigation.
Mr Rosenstein visited Capitol Hill on Thursday and met the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee. In a brief hallway conversation with a reporter, Mr Rosenstein denied reports that he had threatened to quit.
Mr Comey is only the second FBI director in the agency’s 109-year history to be fired by a sitting president, following Bill Clinton’s decision to dismiss FBI chief William Sessions in 1993 over the misuse of FBI funds.
Mr Trump told NBC that "the FBI has been in turmoil" since last year, apparently a reference to the controversy over how an investigation over the emails of his rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, was managed, and "it hasn't recovered from that".
Meanwhile, the acting head of the FBI said there had been no effort by the White House to date to impede the agency's investigation into Russia. Andrew McCabe, who has replaced Mr Comey as acting head of the FBI, assured US senators the investigation would continue.
Mr McCabe vowed to inform Congress if there were any efforts by the White House to interfere in the ongoing investigation into links between the Trump campaign team and the Kremlin.
But he said he was unable to confirm if Mr Comey had told Mr Trump on three occasions that the president was not under investigation, as claimed by Mr Trump on Tuesday.
Asked by senators about Mr Comey’s sacking, Mr McCabe said there was “broad support” for Mr Comey within the FBI.
Democratic senators sharply criticised Mr Trump’s decision to sack the head of the FBI.
Senator Mark Warner said the committee had planned to ask Mr Comey "a series of difficult questions" about Russian meddling in the election campaign on Thursday.
“However, President Trump’s actions this week cost us an opportunity to get at the truth — at least for today,” he said. “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.”
In his parting letter to colleagues on Wednesday, Mr Comey urged the bureau to remain a “rock of competence, honesty and independence” in the wake of this week’s controversy as he urged staff to move on from the decision by Mr Trump to fire him.
Mr Comey said he had “long believed that a president can fire an FBI director for any reason, or for no reason at all”.
He continued: “I’m not going to spend time on the decision or the way it was executed. I hope you won’t either.”
(Additional reporting: Reuters)