WASHINGTON — President Trump on Thursday directly contradicted his top advisors, including the vice president, on his reasons for ousting FBI Director James Comey, while also revealing for the first time that he took the extraordinary step of asking Comey whether he was the target of a criminal investigation.
The president’s statements, in an NBC interview, cast new doubts about the chain of events leading up to the dramatic dismissal of Comey, who was leading an investigation into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election in ways that benefited the Republican’s candidacy.
To much of official Washington, the shifting explanations have made it difficult to tell when the president and his embattled team are telling the truth.
Although top White House officials — from Trump’s communications staff to his vice president — said for two days that Trump fired Comey with an unprompted recommendation of the Justice Department, Trump himself said on Thursday that the recommendation played little role.
“And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,’” Trump said in the interview. “It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.”
He also did not cite Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server, which was the public rationale for dismissal provided by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
“I was going to fire Comey — my decision.” Trump said. “I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.’’
“Look, he’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander,” Trump said of Comey. “The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that.”
Trump also outlined a series of highly unusual conversations that he claimed to have had with Comey.
The president said that on three occasions he asked the FBI director whether he was personally under investigation by the country’s top law enforcement agency. The talks took place over a dinner — one in which Trump said he was considering whether to keep Comey — and in two phone conversations. By Trump’s account, Comey told him during these conversations that he was not being investigated, but he left open the possibility that his campaign and others close to him were.
“I actually asked him, yes,” Trump told NBC. “I said, ‘If it’s possible would you let me know, am I under investigation?’ He said, ‘You are not under investigation.’ ”
“Well, all I can tell you is, well I know what, I know that I’m not under investigation. Me. Personally,” Trump said. “I’m not talking about campaigns. I’m not talking about anything else. I’m not under investigation.”
Comey could not be reached to confirm the president’s account.
But Comey testified before Congress in March that the FBI was investigating “any links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination.”
It is extraordinary for a president to request such information from the nation’s top law enforcement official. Some Republicans, who had condemned then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch for an improper meeting with Bill Clinton, defended Trump.
“The president of the United States is not above the law, but he’s got a day job, and when he sits down with a world leader we need to find out whether he is under investigation or not,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said in a brief interview. “I think it’s good for the country to know the answer to that.”
Contradictory comments and narratives coming out of the White House focused on pivotal steps leading to Trump’s decision to fire the FBI director. Another area of disagreement within the administration was over the morale at the FBI under Comey.
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Thursday that she had spoken with “countless” FBI members who said they had lost faith in Comey. She declined to say how many she had spoken to, but that claim, too, came under a cloud.
But while testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday morning, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe said that Comey had not lost confidence of rank and file agents.
“That is not accurate,” McCabe said in a response to questions during congressional testimony. “I can tell you also that Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.”
McCabe said the agency would continue to pursue the investigation into Russian meddling in the US election and would not allow any interference from the White House.
“The work of the men and women of the FBI continues despite any changes in circumstances,” he said. “There has been no effort to impede our investigation to date. Simply put, you cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing.”
He also called the investigation into Russia’s role in the US election “highly significant,” which contradicts Sanders’ statement on Wednesday that the inquiry is “probably one of the smallest things that they’ve got going on their plate.”
Democrats said such contradictions undermine the president’s ability to use the office as a platform to present arguments to the American people.
“When you are the White House you have an opportunity to make your argument. You have a press corps who are dedicated to understanding what that argument is. There was a lot of power in that,” said Josh Earnest, who was White House press secretary under President Obama.
Earnest declined to offer an opinion on how Trump’s team is handling the job. But he noted that when Obama made significant decisions, the president would personally explain his thinking to Earnest so that he’d be prepared to accurately convey the president’s thinking to the news media.
“Those arguments are only persuasive if people believe them,” Earnest said. “If you can provide evidence to support them. Otherwise people are going to start tuning you out and it’s a wasted opportunity.”
One way to restore credibility — and quickly — is to find an FBI director who is unimpeachable and clearly independent. One unconventional idea, illustrative of Republicans’ desire for more credibility in the investigation, came from Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah. He suggested nominating Merrick Garland, the centrist jurist whom Obama offered for the Supreme Court last year and whom Senate Republicans refused to consider.
“It has some advantages to it because as you point out this is someone who has a lot of bona fides as a prosecutor,” Lee said in Fox News interview Thursday. “He’s someone who’s got likely allies as a potential FBI director nominee in both political parties.”
It is unclear whether Garland, who is the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, would have any interest in the job.
Another avenue would involve appointing a special prosecutor to oversee an independent investigation. Top Republicans have repeatedly declined to go along and the White House vehemently opposes the idea.
There’s some logic to the GOP position: Many in Washington believe that it would further destabilize Trump’s presidency.
“The special prosecutors always roam pretty far,” said Matt Bennett, a senior vice president at Third Way, a centrist Democratic Washington think tank. “If they appoint a special prosecutor the odds of Trump making it through four years drops precipitously.”
Even if Trump’s administration can withstand the scrutiny from an independent investigation, a special prosector would be well-positioned to dominate the news cycles in a way that could make governing next to impossible.
“The president knows that a special prosecutor’s office could dominate the media discussion for the next three years in the same way he dominated the media discussion for the last two years,” said Stu Loeser, a Democratic strategist who was a spokesman for former Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
“He knows better than nearly anybody how someone with something new to say every day can dominate the national discussion.”
Victoria McGrane of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Annie Linskey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey. Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.