The Senate Intelligence Committee had planned to hear from James Comey at their worldwide threats hearing on Thursday. Sen. Mark Warner said he had prepared “a series of difficult questions having to do with Trump associates” and relating to the FBI’s ongoing investigation into Russian influence over the 2016 presidential election.
Instead, the committee got Andrew G. McCabe, the Comey deputy who took over leadership of the bureau after Trump abruptly fired Comey as the FBI director on Tuesday afternoon. Sitting beside the heads of the CIA, NSA, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, McCabe got a rough political baptism as senators grilled him over the circumstances surrounding Comey’s firing, and the status of the investigation into Trump’s Russia ties.
McCabe’s testimony contradicted the White House on two key points.
While the White House has repeatedly said the FBI no longer had confidence in Comey, McCabe said the bureau had his back. “Director Comey enjoys broad support within the FBI and still does to this day,” he said.
And while White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders has called the Russia investigation “one of the smallest things” on the FBI’s plate, McCabe said it was “a highly significant investigation.”
McCabe was circumspect about the bureau’s interactions with Trump. He refused to comment on the accuracy of a claim made by Trump, in his letter firing Comey, that Comey had informed Trump “on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation.” Trump reiterated that claim in a Thursday interview with NBC that coincided with the committee hearing. “I said, if it’s possible would you let me know, ‘Am I under investigation?’ He said, ‘You are not under investigation,’” Trump told Holt.
Nor would McCabe say, when asked by Sen. Ron Wyden, whether such conversations between Trump and Comey would be improper if they did take place. When pressed by Sen. Martin Heinrich, McCabe said that he had met with Trump earlier this week, but that the Russia investigation had not come up.
Contrary to reporting in the New York Times and Washington Post that Comey’s firing had followed a request from him for more resources to work on the Russia investigation, McCabe said that the FBI had what it needed, and that its work would continue unimpeded. He did not say specifically whether or not the FBI had asked for more prosecutors.
William D. Gore, who led two FBI field offices and is now the sheriff of San Diego County, told The Intercept that McCabe did a good job of representing the bureau in Thursday’s hearing.
“He came across as an apolitical professional who will follow the facts wherever they take him,” Gore said. Gore had harsher words for the manner in which Trump fired Comey, which he called “atrocious.”
“Comey is a class guy,” Gore said. “To handle his dismissal in that way was reprehensible, in my opinion. How about a phone call? Or a person-to-person meeting? It’s called leadership 101. Anyone who runs an organization knows that.”
Two hours into the hearing, senators Warner and Burr, the committee’s vice chairman and chairman, abruptly stepped out to meet with Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general whose memorandum on Comey’s job performance provided the rationale for Trump’s decision to dismiss of Comey. At least that was the White House’s version of events before this afternoon, when Trump offered a revised rationale in his NBC interview, saying the dismissal was his decision alone. Rosenstein was reportedly close to resigning over Comey’s dismissal after the White House initially cast his memorandum as the cause of Trump’s decision.
Rosenstein, Warner and Burr huddled in the committee’s secure office for nearly an hour. Afterwards, Burr said the committee had requested to meet with Rosenstein before Comey’s departure, and that the circumstances of Comey’s firing did not come up in their meeting. Warner said he told Rosenstein that he ought to appoint a special counsel to look into Trump’s Russia ties, something that he and many other Democratic lawmakers have advocated. “I think he took it under advisement,” Warner said, when asked how Rosenstein took to the suggestion. “I think he listened.”
Rosenstein left without answering questions.