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Trump Defends Firing Comey as Democrats Call for Independent Probe

President Trump's defense of his decision to fire FBI chief Comey comes amid calls from Democrats for a special prosecutor — and a shrug from Putin.
Image: Donald Trump, Henry Kissinger
President Donald Trump talks to reporters during a meeting with Dr. Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under President Richard Nixon, in the Oval Office of the White House on May 10.Evan Vucci / AP

President Donald Trump on Wednesday defended his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey as Democratic lawmakers ratcheted up their demands for the appointment of a special prosecutor.

"He was not doing a good job," Trump insisted at the White House. "Very simply, he was not doing a good job."

Those were the president's first public comments since he stunned Washington and the nation on Tuesday by abruptly axing Comey as he was leading an investigation into the Trump campaign's alleged ties to Russia.

The president later tweeted, "Dems have been complaining for months & months about Dir. Comey. Now that he has been fired they PRETEND to be aggrieved. Phony hypocrites!"

Later, Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump "had been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected."

Trump had lost confidence in Comey — who had six years left in his 10-year term — “over the last several months,” Sanders insisted, but didn’t fire him at the outset of his administration because he wanted to “give Comey a chance.”

But Sanders' remarks are at odds with claims White House press secretary Sean Spicer made just last week when he said he believed Comey still had the confidence of the president.

And Trump himself praised Comey as recently as last month in an interview with FOX News' Maria Bartiromo — and several times on the campaign trail.

"The president was wearing a different hat," Sanders said. "The circumstances change when you become the president."

There was also anger inside the FBI at the way Comey was fired.

"The way this was done, I think was done to send a message to the FBI agents left behind," a senior intelligence official told NBC News. "It’s not just that they removed him — it’s that they did it in the most thuggish and humiliating way possible. No notice, no nothing — instant execution. The bodyguard delivers the letter to headquarters. I think that was designed to send a message: Cut this sh-- out, or this will happen to you. This is like horse head in the bed."

Coincidentally, Trump's remarks about Comey came after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, which was closed to U.S. press.

"Not at all," Trump said in response to a shouted question about whether the furor over Comey cast a pall over his meeting with Lavrov. "Good meeting with Lavrov, we want to see the killing, horrible killing in Syria stop as soon as possible. Everybody [is] working toward that end."

Photo handouts supplied by the Russian Embassy showed Trump also met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — one of the central figures in the Comey investigation. That meeting was closed to U.S. media, too.

Trump fielded questions from the press at the end of his Oval Office meeting with Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state for disgraced President Richard Nixon. He did not respond when asked if the next FBI director will be put in charge of the Russia probe.

Related: Comey Had Asked for More Money for FBI’s Russia Investigation

There are already five candidates for the job, including the current acting director Andrew McCabe, a Justice Department official told NBC News. Trump met with McCabe earlier Wednesday, a White House official said. Details of the meeting were not immediately available.

Lavrov, in a testy exchange with reporters at the Russian Embassy, said he and Trump did not delve into the allegations that Moscow helped get him elected president, dismissing that as "fake information" and "absurd." He called the furor over Comey an "internal issue."

Earlier, Vice President Mike Pence defended his boss' decision to fire Comey as "right decision, right time" and unrelated to the Russia investigation.

Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told NBC News' Andrea Mitchell that it pains him to say that Pence was lying.

"He was asked, 'Did the President fire Comey to interfere with the Russia investigation,'" Schiff said. "Well, if he believed that, the simple answer was no. But that wasn't his immediate answer, you could see him thinking about the question."

Pence's comments also stood in contrast to the muted response from most of his fellow Republicans, including some key GOP senators, who admitted being troubled by Comey's firing.

"The White House timing on this was less than impeccable," Louisiana Senator John Kennedy, a Republican, told NBC News. "The president's selection of a new FBI director might be one of the most important decisions of his presidency."

Meanwhile, top Judiciary Committee Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein renewed her call for a special prosecutor to oversee the Russian investigation.

"At a minimum, the decision to fire Comey raises questions about the appropriateness and timing of the person in charge of an investigation that could, I won't say would, but could, implicate the administration," Feinstein said.

Feinstein and two other Democratic senators also called on the Justice Department to appoint someone other than Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who had a hand in canning Comey, to make the decision on whether a special prosecutor will be appointed — and who that person might be.

"I think that individual should not be one of the political appointees," Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said after emerging from the caucus room. "I do not have faith in the political appointees."

His office later confirmed that Comey has been invited to tell his side of the story on Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said he was especially troubled by "the things I learned this morning" about the role Rosenstein played in Comey's ouster. He did not go into detail about what he heard about Rosenstein, who has been previously described as a straight shooter who worked for both Democratic and Republican presidents.

But Feinstein focused on the letter Rosenstein wrote to Trump.

"If you read his paper, it’s not a legal paper," she said. "It’s quotes assembled from other people and, I thought, very troubling. And this is a man who's been here for two weeks, so I'm a bit turned off on Mr. Rosenstein to be honest with you."

The White House on Tuesday cited Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation as the reason they were firing the veteran G-man, insisting that the president has lost confidence in his ability to perform his job.

The White House said Trump over the last several months lost confidence in Comey and after watching Comey's testimony last Wednesday was strongly inclined to remove him; that Trump met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and deputy Rod Rosenstein on Monday; and that on Tuesday both sent written recommendations to the president.

Democrats, most of whom believe that Comey's intrusion into the election helped Trump win the presidency, immediately denounced the move and New York Senator Charles Schumer suggested a "cover-up" was underway.

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said neither he nor his constituents believe "this is all about trying to protect the honor of Hillary Clinton."

"It certainly feels like this is in response or connection to a growing scope of the Russia investigation," he told MSNBC on Wednesday.

On Wall Street, the stock market sputtered amid fears that the Comey crisis could put the brakes on the pro-growth agenda Trump has been promising.

Over in Russia, President Vladimir Putin was suited-up for a hockey match when he dismissed the drama unfolding in Washington.

"We have nothing to do with it," he told CBS News via a translator. "President Trump is acting in accordance with his law and Constitution."

Then he headed out onto the ice.

"You see, I'm going to play hockey," he said. "I invite you to do the same."

Former FBI agent Jeffrey Ringel, who is now with strategic intelligence company The Soufan Group, told NBC News that "most people that I've talked to and from my experience still respect Director Comey and are again saddened that he’s leaving."

Ringel said he the shakeup won’t affect the motivation of the agents working on the Russia investigation.

"The men and the women at the FBI above all else want to be non-partisan and they want to support the Constitution of the United States. They are not looking to target one particular group, political party, presidency," he said. "We are looking to get to the bottom, to get the truth, so we can conduct our investigation."