Overall, he seemed to regard Comey’s independence as a threat—in particular, Reuters reports, Comey’s refusal to preview testimony to Congress for the White House. The Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI probe had become more active recently, and that Comey was being briefed daily instead of weekly.
If Trump hoped that removing Comey as FBI director would solve these problems, he must be painfully disappointed—at least in the short term. Not only has the row brought new attention to the Russia probe, and even more of the leaks that Trump detests so much, but during Senate testimony on Thursday, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe indicated that he’s likely to rub Trump the wrong way in many of the same ways his old boss did.
Filling in for Comey, who had been scheduled to appear before his sacking, McCabe called the Russia investigation “highly significant.” He also promised senators that he would not inform the president about any ongoing investigations. McCabe said that there had been no political interference in the Russia probe so far (though one’s view of that assessment depends on one’s interpretation of Comey’s firing), but he vowed to inform members of the Senate Intelligence Committee if there was any, as well as to ask them if needed more resources. McCabe said he could not comment on Comey’s conversations with Trump.
McCabe did align with the White House on one key issue: He said there was no need for a special prosecutor to take over the case. But he also disputed one of the White House’s justifications for Comey’s firing, that the FBI was in chaos and that employees wanted Comey gone. In addition to Trump’s remarks to Holt, Sanders said on Wednesday, “Most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director.”
“No sir, that is not accurate,” McCabe said. “I hold Director Comey in the absolute highest regard. Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI.”
Of course, McCabe can be fired just as Comey was. The Daily Beast reports that some conservatives are already rallying for him to be removed from his post, and his name has not been mentioned as one of the contenders for the permanent job. As a lifelong FBI agent, however, he is thought to enjoy significant rank-and-file support.
The Senate Intelligence Committee hearing where McCabe testified was briefly interrupted by another bizarre moment. During the course of the hearing, Chairman Richard Burr and Ranking Member Mark Warner briefly stepped out to meet with Rosenstein, who had come to speak with them. The reason and content of that discussion were not immediately clear, and a Justice Department spokeswoman said it was “nothing unusual.”
Rosenstein, like McCabe, is a career lawman suddenly thrust directly into the political glare. His own role in the Comey firing is unclear. Initially, the White House portrayed his memo recommending dismissal as coming of his own volition. On Wednesday, Sanders said that Rosenstein had been at the White House on Monday for meetings and has asked to speak with Trump about Comey. Rosenstein expressed his concerns, Sanders said, and Trump asked him to put them in writing. During his interview with Holt, Trump dodged a question about whether and when he asked Rosenstein for the memo.
The Washington Post, however, reported that Rosenstein had been ordered to produce the memo, and that he had threatened to resign—barely two weeks into the job—after being portrayed as the motivating force for Comey’s firing.
The president has now put any of those questions to rest by claiming the decision to fire Comey as his alone. Then again, since that’s at least the third story the White House has offered in as many days, any explanation is subject to revision.