WASHINGTON -- The acting chief of the FBI contradicted the White House on several points concerning FBI Director James Comey’s abrupt firing, as he testified in a highly anticipated Senate hearing.
In comments to the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 11, two days after President Donald Trump dismissed Comey, Andrew McCabe said the agency's ongoing investigation into ties between Russian officials and Trump associates was "highly significant."
A day earlier, a White House spokesman had downplayed the importance of the probe, which is being conducted concurrently with the Senate committee's investigation and that of two other congressional panels.
Comey's dismissal stunned lawmakers, roiled Washington politics, and deepened questions about Trump's administration and the independence of U.S. law-enforcement agencies from political pressure.
Democratic lawmakers, and some Republicans, have publicly doubted the justification Trump gave for firing Comey -- that he had not properly managed the investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her e-mail practices.
McCabe, who was Comey's deputy, is expected to be replaced by a candidate now being vetted by the head of the Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and other White House appointees.
Lawmakers Voice Concern
The topic of the May 11 panel was scheduled to be "worldwide threats," and panel speakers include heads of major U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA and National Security Agency. But the panel's lead Democratic lawmaker, Mark Warner, made clear in his opening remarks that the Russia investigations, and Comey's firing, were paramount.
"It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the president's decision to remove Director Comey is related directly to this investigation," he said.
The committee's chairman, Richard Burr, was one of several Republican lawmakers to publicly voice concern about Trump's firing of Comey. His first question to McCabe was whether he heard Comey ever tell Trump he was not the subject of any investigations.
McCabe declined to comment.
Republican Susan Collins raised the same question in a different way. She asked McCabe if the FBI usually tells people that they are not a target of investigation.
McCabe said that wasn't standard practice.
But Trump, in an interview aired by NBC on May 11, restated his earlier comments that Comey had assured him three times that he was not under investigation.
A day earlier, the committee announced it had issued subpoenas to Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, for documents related to its Russia investigation.
Flynn was fired in February by Trump after it emerged that he had misled White House officials about his interactions with Russian officials, including Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
Comey 'Enjoyed Broad Support'
Since Comey’s firing, the White House has partly justified Trump's decision by saying that Comey had lost the confidence of FBI employees and the broader public.
"That is not accurate," McCabe told senators. "I can tell you also that Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day."
McCabe said there had been no attempt to impede the bureau's investigations, and he also contradicted some media reports that Comey had requested more funding for the Russia-related investigations.
"The work of the FBI continues despite any changes in circumstances… there has been no effort to impede our investigation to date," he said.
McCabe later told the senators that he will not update the White House on the progress of the investigation.
Warner and Burr left the hearing midway and met with Rob Rosenstein, the newly hired deputy attorney general who co-signed the White House memo firing Comey.
When that meeting concluded after roughly 30 minutes, the two senators emerged to tell reporters that Comey's firing wasn't discussed, but rather how to make sure the Senate probe didn’t interfere with the FBI's.