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Acting FBI Director Contradicts White House Explanation For Comey's Dismissal


Most of today's fallout from the firing of FBI Director James Comey happened on Capitol Hill. Comey had been scheduled to testify there today. Instead, it was acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe who appeared at a rare public hearing of the Senate intelligence committee. And a lot of what he said clashed with President Trump's version of events. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Democrats on the Senate intelligence panel had been eagerly anticipating the chance to publicly question James Comey today about the FBI's 10-month-old probe of Russian meddling in the presidential election. But with Comey now out of a job, ranking Democrat Mark Warner made clear he was disappointed.


MARK WARNER: We and the American people were supposed to hear straight from the individual responsible for the FBI investigation.

WELNA: Richard Burr, the Republican who chairs the committee, admonished his colleagues to stick to the hearing's official topic - an annual assessment of worldwide threats. He then turned to the man at the witness table representing the FBI.


RICHARD BURR: Director McCabe, welcome to the table and into the fray. To the extent possible, I hope you'll discuss the bureau's assessments of the terrorist threat within our borders.

WELNA: Still, Burr's first question to the FBI's new acting director was about an unsubstantiated claim President Trump had made in the letter informing Comey he was fired.


BURR: Did you ever hear Director Comey tell the president that he was not the subject of an investigation?

ANDREW MCCABE: Sir, I can't comment on any conversations the director may have had with the president.

WELNA: New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich then posed the same question from a somewhat different angle.


MARTIN HEINRICH: 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?

MCCABE: No, Sir.

WELNA: It was Maine Republican Susan Collins who got McCabe to confirm just how unusual Trump's claim was.


SUSAN COLLINS: Is it standard practice for the FBI to inform someone that they are not a target of an investigation?

MCCABE: It is not.

WELNA: And Maine Independent Angus King pressed McCabe on White House efforts to play down the FBI Russia probe.


ANGUS KING: Yesterday, a White House press spokesman said that this is one of the smallest things on the plate of the FBI. Is that an accurate statement?


KING: It this a small investigation in relation to all the other work that you're doing?

MCCABE: Sir, we consider it to be a highly significant investigation.

KING: So you would not characterize it as one of the smallest things you're engaged in.

MCCABE: I would not.

WELNA: McCabe also contradicted another White House claim when New Mexico Democrat Heinrich asked about supposed discontent at the FBI with Comey.


HEINRICH: Is it accurate that the rank and file no longer supported Director Comey?

MCCABE: No, Sir. That is not accurate.

WELNA: McCabe, who was Comey's number two, said he held his former boss in, quote, "the absolute highest regard."


MCCABE: I can tell you also that Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.

WELNA: McCabe's praise stood in stark contrast to what Trump had to say about Comey in a clip NBC News released today.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's a showboat. He's a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that.

WELNA: After the hearing, Chairman Burr, who'd advised Trump's campaign, was asked what he thought of Comey.


BURR: I found him to be one of the most ethical, upright, straightforward individuals I've had the opportunity to work with.

WELNA: It's not clear how long McCabe will remain as Comey's acting replacement. The White House has begun looking for an interim FBI director. McCabe had been on the short list for that post, but his testimony today won't likely improve his prospects. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.