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Acting Director Counters White House on FBI Morale, 'Highly Significant' Russia Probe

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON — The acting director of the FBI, while tight-lipped about any conversations former Director James Comey may or may not have had with President Trump about the investigation into Russia’s campaign influence operation, told the Senate Intelligence Committee this morning that Comey enjoyed broad support among the Bureau’s staff.

“Most importantly, the rank-and-file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Wednesday in the explanation of Comey’s Tuesday termination, adding later that he “no longer had the confidence of the president or the rest of the FBI.”

McCabe, who joined the FBI as a special agent in 1996, told lawmakers that was “not accurate.”

“I can tell you, sir, that I worked very, very closely with Director Comey,” he testified. “From the moment he started at the FBI I was his executive assistant director of national security at that time, and I worked for him running the Washington field office. And of course I’ve served as deputy for the last year.”

“I can tell you that I hold Director Comey in the absolute highest regard. I have the highest respect for his considerable abilities and his integrity and it has been the greatest privilege and honor in my professional life to work with him. I can tell you also that Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does until this day,” McCabe added. “We are a large organization, we are 36,500 people across this country, across this globe. We have a diversity of opinions about many things, but I can confidently tell you that the majority — the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey.”

In response, Sanders told reporters today that she and McCabe “may have to agree to disagree.”

“I’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the president’s decision,” she said, adding she’d received text messages and emails from “a large number of individuals” even though she doesn’t “know that many people in the FBI.”

In the Wednesday briefing, Sanders also called the Russia probe “probably one of the smallest things that [the FBI has] got going on their plate.”

“We consider it to be a highly significant investigation,” McCabe told senators when asked about her comment.

Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) asked McCabe about Trump’s letter to Comey in which the president wrote, “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”

“I can’t comment on any conversations the director may have had with the president,” McCabe replied.

“Will you refrain from these kinds of alleged updates to the president or anyone else in the White House on the status of the investigation?” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked.

“I will,” McCabe responded.

“Is it your experience that people who are innocent of wrongdoing typically need to be reassured that they’re not the subject of an investigation?” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) asked.

“No, sir,” McCabe answered.

The White House has not indicated yet whom they intend to nominate to replace Comey. McCabe, who said he met with the president this week “but I really don’t want to go into the details of that,” assured the Intel Committee he was “absolutely” committed to the Russia investigation for as long as he heads the Bureau.

“The work of the men and women of the FBI continues despite any changes in circumstance, any decisions. So there has been no effort to impede our investigation today. Quite simply put, sir, you cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing, protecting the American people, and upholding the Constitution,” he said.

In an interview today with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump called Comey a “showboat” and a “grandstander.”

“The FBI has been in turmoil,” Trump said. “You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.”

At a briefing with reporters today following a closed-door Senate Intelligence meeting with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Burr said he found Comey “to be one of the most ethical, upright, straight forward individuals I’ve had the opportunity to work with — he provided our committee more access to information than any director of the FBI.”

“Sure, there were FBI employees that disagreed with how he handled the Clinton e-mail announcements and his interaction or lack thereof with the attorney general at the time,” the chairman added. “The lion’s share of FBI employees respect the former director, and it shows the professionalism that he brought to the role that he was in. And I’m sure he will at some point have an opportunity to share, if he wants to, his side of the story.”

Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) called Trump’s comments “a continuing pattern of disrespecting the men and women who serve in our intelligence community.”

Burr said Comey had not yet responded to the committee’s invitation to meet with the former FBI director in closed session on Tuesday.

On reports that Rosenstein threatened to quit over how the Comey firing was handled, Burr said, “We didn’t ask him about it. He didn’t share it with us.”