WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday called former FBI Director James Comey a “showboat” and “grandstander” and said the investigation into Russian meddling was on his mind when he fired Comey.
“When I decided to just do it,” Trump said of ousting Comey, “I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ ”
In an interview with NBC News, Trump stressed that Comey told him he was not the target of the investigation.
“There’s no collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians,” Trump said, repeating that he has no Kremlin ties.
The president said he supports the probe generally.
“If Russia or anybody else is trying to interfere with our elections, I think it’s a horrible thing and I want to get to the bottom of it,” he said.
Amid the fallout from Trump’s stunning dismissal Tuesday of Comey, Democrats on Capitol Hill have called for an independent prosecutor to pick up where the FBI director left off in the Russia probe.
Trump, in his interview, sketched the chain of events leading up to Comey’s removal — at times contradicting statements by administration officials.
Trump said he would have fired Comey even without guidance from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
“He made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it,” the president said.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Vice President Mike Pence had said Trump acted on Rosenstein’s recommendation.
Huckabee Sanders insisted Thursday that their narratives were straight.
“Our story is consistent,” she said. “The president is the only person that can fire the director of the FBI. He serves at the pleasure of the president.”
Trump also elaborated on how Comey came to tell him that he was not part of the FBI probe into Russia.
Comey first made the point over a dinner during which the FBI director asked to keep his job, Trump said.
Comey repeated it in two phone calls, Trump said.
“I actually asked him . . . I said, ‘If it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation?’” Trump recalled in the NBC interview. “He said, “You are not under investigation.’”
Trump told interviewer Lester Holt: “All I can tell you is . . . I know that I’m not under investigation. Me. Personally. I’m not talking about campaigns.”
Trump’s letter Tuesday notifying Comey of his ouster had included the line: “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”
Until the NBC News interview, the White House had not explained what Trump meant.
Huckabee Sanders said Thursday she did not believe it was a conflict of interest for the president to ask about his investigation status.
Comey has not spoken publicly about the communications with Trump.
Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe told a Senate panel Thursday that it is not common practice to tell people they aren’t targets of a probe. McCabe said he will not be updating Trump on the status of the Russia investigation.
The president downplayed Kremlin meddling in a tweet earlier Thursday.
“Russia must be laughing up their sleeves watching as the U.S. tears itself apart over a Democrat EXCUSE for losing the election,” he posted.
Trump and his aides have sought to highlight what they have called the hypocrisy of Democratic elected officials who are condemning Comey’s removal, despite having previously denounced Comey for a revived investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails that they say hampered her from winning the White House. Holt also asked Trump whether he “thought through the optics” of firing Comey the day before he met in the Oval Office with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
“I never thought about it.,” Trump replied. “It was set up a while ago and frankly, I could have waited but what difference does it make? I’m not looking for cosmetics. I’m looking to do a great job for the country. I’m looking to create jobs. I’m looking to create strength and security. I’m looking to have strong borders. I’m looking for things like that. I think it’s really a good thing that I meet with people.”
Also Thursday, Trump quoted a December 2016 tweet by former talk show host Rosie O’Donnell, with whom he has long feuded.
“FIRE COMEY,” she had posted.
“We finally agree on something Rosie,” Trump wrote.