Calling ousted FBI Director James B. Comey a “showboat,” President Trump said Thursday that he had planned to fire Mr. Comey regardless of whether Justice Department officials advised it.
“The FBI has been in turmoil,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with NBC News. “Look, he’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander. Regardless of [a] recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”
In his first extended explanation for the firing, the president also said Mr. Comey assured him three times since his inauguration that the FBI wasn’t investigating Mr. Trump personally over his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. Mr. Trump said one of the conversations came over dinner as Mr. Comey was making a pitch to remain in his job.
“He wanted to stay at the FBI, and I said I’ll, you know, consider and see what happens,” the president told anchor Lester Holt. “But we had a very nice dinner, and at that time he told me, ‘You are not under investigation.’ Which I knew anyway.”
Mr. Trump said the FBI chief gave him the same assurance in two phone calls. In one of those calls, the president said he brought up the issue.
“I actually asked him, yes,” Mr. Trump recalled. “I said, ‘If it’s possible, would you let me know am I under investigation?’ He said, ‘You are not under investigation.’ “
The president’s comments seemed to make a clear distinction between himself and some of his former campaign officials, such as Carter Page and Michael Flynn.
“All I can tell you is, well, I know what, I know that I’m not under investigation. Me. Personally,” Mr. Trump said. “I’m not talking about campaigns. I’m not talking about anything else.”
The interview prompted some observers to accuse the president of trying to obstruct justice in the FBI probe.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Mr. Trump’s new explanation contradicts the version laid out by Vice President Mike Pence and White House spokespersons earlier this week that the president had simply accepted the advice of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to fire Mr. Comey.
“Which one was it? Did the vice president mislead the public or did the president?” the New York Democrat said. “The American people deserve answers.”
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders said the administration’s critics were “arguing about the semantics” of the move.
“I’m not sure how [Mr. Trump] didn’t accept the deputy attorney general’s recommendation when they agreed with one another,” she said.
Democrats have been asking for Mr. Rosenstein to come to the Capitol to brief senators on the progress of the Russia investigation, and late Thursday, Mr. Schumer said he and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have agreed to issue that invitation.
Democrats have accused Mr. Trump of sacking the FBI director to undermine the Russia investigation. The president denied that in the interview with Mr. Holt, who asked if the president was trying to send a message to Mr. Comey’s successor to “lay off” the probe.
“I’m not,” Mr. Trump said. “If Russia did anything, I want to know that.”
The president also asserted there was no “collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians.”
“Also, the Russians did not affect the vote,” Mr. Trump said.
The White House said firing Mr. Comey actually could speed up the FBI’s probe into Russian meddling, and enable the country to move on to Mr. Trump’s agenda.
“We want this to come to its conclusion. We want it to come to its conclusion with integrity,” Ms. Sanders said. “And we think that we’ve actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.”
She said Mr. Trump would “love nothing more than for this investigation to continue to its completion.”
The president fired Mr. Comey Tuesday, saying he no longer had confidence in him. The firing was recommended in writing by Mr. Rosenstein and Mr. Sessions; and earlier this week White House officials had portrayed Mr. Trump’s decision as one of accepting his advisers’ recommendation.
But the president’s comments Thursday made clear he had been angling to fire Mr. Comey for much longer, stemming from the FBI director’s handling of a probe in 2016 of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s private email server from her tenure as secretary of State.
Mr. Comey first announced in July that Mrs. Clinton’s handling of classified emails on an unsecured server had been “reckless” but didn’t warrant criminal charges. Then Mr. Comey announced in late October, in the heat of the campaign, that he was reopening the investigation to review more classified emails, which also resulted in no charges.
“You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago,” the president said. “It hasn’t recovered from that.”
The White House also rejected a report that Mr. Rosenstein was so disturbed by the West Wing’s placing responsibility on him for the firing that he threatened to quit after only two weeks on the job.
“I don’t think there was ever an attempt to pin the decision on the deputy attorney general,” Ms. Sanders said. “We know that the president’s been thinking about this for a long time. The president is the only person who can fire the director of the FBI.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said the report that Mr. Rosenstein threatened to quit was false.
In his May 9 memo, Mr. Rosenstein said Mr. Comey “made serious mistakes” in his public handling of the investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s secret emails, and was unable to regain the trust of the public.
The firing also followed Mr. Comey’s congressional testimony on May 3, when he confirmed the ongoing probe into Russian tampering in the election and the possibility of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. He told lawmakers he was “mildly nauseous” over accusations that his actions last fall in the Clinton probe might have swayed the presidential election.
White House aides said Mr. Trump was furious over Mr. Comey’s testimony.
“After watching Director Comey’s testimony [on May 3], the president was strongly inclined to remove him,” Ms. Sanders said.
Reacting to the president’s characterization of Mr. Comey as a “showboat” and “grandstander,” Sen. Mark R. Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, shook his head.
“I’m offended at the president’s comments,” said Mr. Warner, Virginia Democrat. “This is a continuing pattern of disrespecting the men and women who serve in our intelligence community.”
Standing next to him, Sen. Richard M. Burr, the chairman of the committee, said he believed Mr. Comey displayed a high degree of professionalism in his role.
“I found him to be one of the most ethical, upright, straightforward individuals I’ve had the opportunity to work with,” the North Carolina Republican said. “He provided our committee more access to information than any director of the FBI.”
• Andrea Noble and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.