Thrust into the hot seat less than 48 hours after taking command as acting director of the nation’s leading law enforcement agency, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe robustly defended the honor of his former boss on Thursday, pushing back at White House charges that agents had lost faith in James B. Comey and that the bureau was in disarray.
“Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day,” Mr. McCabe told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, adding that “the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to [him].”
A 21-year veteran of the bureau, Mr. McCabe was drawn into a political maelstrom with President Trump’s abrupt firing of Mr. Comey this week.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump said Mr. Comey was a “showboat” who was “not doing a good job” overseeing the vast federal investigative agency.
Critics say Mr. Trump’s real motivation was unhappiness with Mr. Comey’s pursuit of suspected collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russians.
By chance, Mr. McCabe made his public debut alongside top officials at the CIA and other intelligence agencies at a packed congressional hearing ostensibly called to examine global threats to U.S. security.
Despite his short tenure, Mr. McCabe was the focus of attention as he repeatedly defended the agency and Mr. Comey.
Mr. McCabe’s testimony did not always track Democratic talking points. He told Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, that Mr. Comey’s dismissal would not hurt the FBI’s ongoing Russia investigation and said he had no knowledge of reports that Mr. Comey had sought more prosecutors and more money for the inquiry just days before his termination.
“There has been no effort to impede our investigation to date,” he said. “Simply put, you cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing.”
Mr. McCabe also undercut White House claims that the Russia investigation was not a major area of focus for the FBI. “Sir, we consider it to be a highly significant investigation,” he told Sen. Angus S. King Jr., Maine independent.
Support for Trump claim
Mr. McCabe also would not vouch for Mr. Trump’s claim that Mr. Comey told him three times that he was not personally a target of the Russian collusion probe. But Mr. Trump’s version of events got a corroboration of sorts from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, who along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the panel’s ranking Democrat, received a briefing from Mr. Comey last week.
On Thursday, both said Mr. Trump was correct when he said he wasn’t personally under investigation in the FBI’s Russia election meddling probe.
“Sen. Feinstein and I heard nothing that contradicted the president’s statement,” Mr. Grassley said. Mrs. Feinstein agreed.
Neither senator would reveal the targets of the FBI investigation, but Mr. Grassley said the bureau should come forward and make its extent clear.
“Because it has failed to make this clear, speculation has run rampant,” Mr. Grassley said.
Back at the Senate hearing, the frustration and confusion over Mr. Trump’s decision bubbled over frequently. The vitriol began early, with ranking Democrat Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia telling Mr. McCabe that if he faces any “political influence from the White House or others to squash” the Russia probe, he should let the committee know.
Mr. Warner said Mr. Comey’s dismissal made it hard to avoid the conclusion that Mr. Trump’s decision was related to the FBI’s Russia investigation. He also reiterated calls from Democrats to appoint an independent special counsel “to get to bottom of what occurred during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
After the hearing, Mr. Warner and Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, reacted to news of Mr. Trump’s assertion that he considered Mr. Comey a “showboat” and “grandstander.”
Mr. Burr called Mr. Comey “ethical, upright and straightforward.”
Mr. Warner said, “I’m offended at the president’s comments. This is a continuing pattern of disrespecting the men and women who serve in our intelligence community.”
In its 108-year-history, the FBI has had 11 directors and seven acting directors. Only one director other than Mr. Comey — William Sessions, who served from 1987-1993 — has been fired.
How long Mr. McCabe stays on as acting director is unknown. The White House is considering numerous candidates to replace Mr. Comey.