WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump had been considering firing James B. Comey from his position as director of the FBI since he became president, a White House spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
But even though Trump had lost confidence in Comey, the recommendation from the deputy attorney general to fire Comey was not made at the president's direction, said the spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Sanders said that Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, was acting on his own when he recommended to Trump during a meeting on Monday that Comey be terminated. At that meeting, the president directed Rosenstein to put the recommendation into writing, Sanders said.
"The president had lost confidence in Director Comey," Sanders said. "He had been considering letting Director Comey go since" Trump entered the White House. The president made the final decision on Tuesday, she said.
Trump was to meet Wednesday afternoon with Andrew G. McCabe, acting director of the bureau, to discuss morale at the agency, Sanders said. She added that Trump would offer to make a visit to the FBI if McCabe believed it would help morale there.
Earlier Wednesday, Trump defended his decision to fire Comey, telling reporters that Comey "wasn't doing a good job" and accusing Democrats of hypocrisy for criticizing the dismissal of a law enforcement chief they, too, had assailed.
Speaking as photographs were being taken in the Oval Office, Trump responded to a question about the reason for Comey's termination. "He wasn't doing a good job," Trump said. "Very simply. He was not doing a good job."
Asked whether the furor over the firing had affected his recently concluded meeting with Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, Trump said, "Not at all."
Earlier Wednesday, in a series of visceral posts on Twitter, the president said he was justified in dismissing Comey because Democrats and Republicans had lost faith in his leadership. He went on to highlight Comey's "scandals" and suggested that a Democratic senator be investigated moments after that senator appeared on television condemning the president's action.
"Watching Senator Richard Blumenthal speak of Comey is a joke," Trump posted. "'Richie' devised one of the greatest military frauds in U.S. history."
For years, "as a pol in Connecticut, Blumenthal would talk of his great bravery and conquests in Vietnam — except he was never there," Trump added.
When "caught, he cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness … and now he is judge & jury," Trump continued. "He should be the one who is investigated for his acts."
The president was referring to an article in The New York Times in 2010, when Blumenthal first ran for Senate. The story said that Blumenthal had presented himself as a Vietnam veteran when in fact he served in the Marine Reserves at home and never went to war. The story did not say that Blumenthal boasted of bravery or conquests, but that he did tell an audience that "I served in Vietnam."
Blumenthal went on CNN Wednesday morning and criticized the president for firing Comey, who was leading an FBI investigation into contacts between Russia and Trump's campaign last year, when, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, the Kremlin directed an effort to tilt the presidential election in Trump's favor.
Blumenthal scoffed at the assertion by the Trump administration that Comey was fired because of concerns about his handling of an investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server last year. Blumenthal said the president had pre-empted an inspector general investigation of Comey's actions by firing him with "a pretense that is laughable."
"I disagreed with James Comey in some of the decisions, but I never advocated he be fired, especially before" the inspector general report, Blumenthal said. "What we have now really is a looming constitutional crisis that is deadly serious because there is an investigation that is ongoing."
Other Democrats continued to attack the firing on Wednesday morning, saying Trump was clearly trying to upend the FBI investigation into the Russian meddling. "It simply defies logic that President Trump, who made the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails a centerpiece of his campaign, would all of the sudden convert to the view that Clinton was treated unfairly," Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said in a statement.
Trump abruptly dismissed Comey late Tuesday, saying that the FBI director was "not able to effectively lead the bureau." While he attributed the decision to the Clinton case, Trump acted against Comey just a day after publicly asserting that the Russia investigation should be dropped, calling it a "taxpayer-funded charade."
Vice President Mike Pence addressed the subject Wednesday morning during a visit to Capitol Hill.
"This administration is very confident that with the appointment of a new director of the FBI, because of the president's strong leadership, we will be able to get this nation's leading law enforcement agency a fresh start," Pence told reporters. "Because of the president's decisive action yesterday to restore the confidence and trust of the American people, we have an opportunity for a new beginning with the FBI."
The vice president did not respond directly to a question about whether the firing was related to the FBI's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
"It was the right decision at the right time," Pence said.
Democrats said that despite their concerns about Comey's actions last year, the president's dismissal evoked the days of President Richard M. Nixon, who ordered the firing of the special prosecutor looking into the Watergate case. They called for the appointment of a special counsel to lead the Russia inquiry.
In his barrage of Twitter posts on Wednesday morning, Trump sought to turn attention to Democrats who had previously criticized Comey.
"The Democrats have said some of the worst things about James Comey, including the fact that he should be fired, but now they play so sad!" Trump wrote.
"Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike," he added in another post. "When things calm down, they will be thanking me!"
He also reposted a link to an article listing what it called "10 major FBI scandals on Comey's watch."
The Twitter posts followed a similar one posted late Tuesday night targeting Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. "Cryin' Chuck Schumer stated recently, 'I do not have confidence in him (James Comey) any longer,'" Trump wrote. "Then acts so indignant. #draintheswamp."
At a news conference Tuesday evening, Schumer said he had told Trump that it would be a mistake to dismiss Comey at the moment when he was leading the Russia investigation. Responding to a reporter's question, Schumer made a distinction between his previous criticism of Comey and Trump's decision to dismiss him now.
"I never called on the president to fire Director Comey," Schumer said. "I have a lot of questions about how he handled himself. But the overwhelming question is this: If the administration had the same questions, the event occurred months ago, and they should've fired Comey on the day they came into office. All of them occurred before he came into office. So that does not seem to me to be a very logical or persuasive explanation."
White House officials on Wednesday morning struggled to explain the decision. In a testy exchange on CNN, Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, denied suggestions that Trump was trying to interfere with the Russia investigation. "The idea that you think this is about Russia and not about an FBI director who just yesterday forced his bureau to correct sworn testimony …" she said before being interrupted by host Chris Cuomo.
Comey testified mistakenly before a Senate committee on May 3 that Huma Abedin, a top adviser to Clinton, had "forwarded hundreds of thousands" of emails to her husband's laptop. The FBI clarified on Tuesday that the emails included those that were backed up manually, not just ones that were forwarded. Cuomo expressed skepticism that Trump fired Comey out of concern for Abedin.
"This is a president who saw that the FBI director had lost the public confidence of Republicans and Democrats," Conway said.
Trump promised to appoint a credible successor to Comey, but he gave no indication of when he would do so or who it would be. Any nominee will require confirmation by the Senate.
"James Comey will be replaced by someone who will do a far better job, bringing back the spirit and prestige of the FBI," Trump wrote Wednesday morning.
"President Trump wants an FBI director who is impartial, who's not politicized and who has the confidence and trust" of the agency staff and Republicans and Democrats, Conway said.