Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Friday made his first comments since FBI Director James Comey was fired earlier this week.
In a wide-ranging interview with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell, Clapper defended Comey and pushed back on several claims made by President Trump — particularly that his own statements on the Russia investigation could be viewed as proof that there is no evidence of collusion.
“I don’t know if there was collusion or not. I don’t know if there’s evidence of collusion or not — nor should I have in this particular context,” Clapper said.
Instead, Clapper stressed that it was his practice as director to always defer to the FBI during ongoing investigations, and insisted that he was focused on compiling a report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
In a series of tweets posted Friday, Trump called the FBI’s probe into his campaign a “witch hunt” and cited Clapper’s testimony to Congress as proof.
Clapper’s remarks came amid fallout from Trump’s interview with NBC’s Lester Holt Thursday. In the interview, the president responded to criticism of the timing of his decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey while an FBI investigation of his campaign is ongoing.
Trump said Comey assured him that he was not personally under investigation for his ties to Russia on three occasions — including once during a White House dinner where Comey “begged for his job.”
Related: Angered Trump Unleashes on James Comey, 'Fake Media'
Clapper said he had met with Comey mere hours before the January 27 dinner and that Comey admitted to having reservations about the meeting.
“He had mentioned that he had been invited to the White House to have dinner with the president and that he was uneasy with that because of compromising even the optics, the appearance of independence, not only of him but of the FBI,” Clapper said.
He added that Comey likely chose to attend despite his reservations out of professional obligation and courtesy.
Clapper also defended his former colleague against White House allegations that FBI employees had “lost faith” in their director.
“From my vantage … the morale in the FBI was very high and I can attest personally because I witnessed the very high esteem and respect that people in the FBI have — still have — for Jim Comey,” he said.
“I think overall as far as Jim’s stature as a public servant, a consummate public servant in my view, he was tremendous.”
Related: Trump 'Fighting Hard' for Legitimacy in 'Divided Country'
Clapper also addressed Trump's national security adviser Michael Flynn and said — though he's known Flynn for a long time and had personally championed his rise through the intelligence community — he believes that his history is irrelevant.
"The key thing, I think, was what is the trust between the president and a national security adviser?" Clapper said. "I personally didn't think Mike had the skill set to be a national security adviser."
As to whether the Obama administration bears the blame for Flynn's fall from grace, as Trump has suggested, Clapper said he feels it's a "tad disingenuous" to equate the standard clearance requirements with the internal vetting procedures of a campaign.