WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump has taken his fight with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to a new level, raising the spectre that he may have taped his conversations with director James Comey before firing him.
Mr Trump tweeted yesterday: "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!"
He also suggested that he may cancel future press briefings and instead "hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy" because "as a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!"
The messages followed Mr Trump on Thursday calling Mr Comey a "showboat" and a "grandstander" and insisting the FBI's Russia probe would show he did nothing wrong. He said he had sent a letter to a top Republican lawmaker declaring that he has no business dealings there.
Yet, the congressional probes into possible ties between Russia and Mr Trump's campaign are pushing ahead and the nation's top law enforcement agency shows no sign of backing down in the face of the President's criticism.
Mr Comey's temporary replacement, Mr Andrew McCabe, made clear that he liked and respected Mr Comey, had no intention of briefing Mr Trump on the investigation into possible Russian interference in last year's presidential election as long as he held the job, and that he considered it one of the most important probes under way at the Justice Department.
One dismissal, many official accounts
Since US President Donald Trump's shock dismissal of FBI director James Comey on Tuesday, the official account of how and why he was sacked has changed.
On Thursday, Mr Trump appeared to contradict the initial version of events.
Here is a timeline of explanations provided by the White House and the President since Tuesday.
Mr Trump fired Mr Comey, with a letter sent to FBI headquarters by his bodyguard. Mr Comey found out about the dismissal through the media.
LATER ON TUESDAY
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer released a statement saying Mr Trump had decided to fire Mr Comey only after Attorney-General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein had recommended that Mr Comey be dismissed for his handling of last year's probe into Mrs Hillary Clinton's e-mails.
ON TUESDAY NIGHT
White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway told CNN that Mr Trump had taken the recommendation of Mr Rosenstein for Mr Comey's sacking.
ON WEDNESDAY MORNING
Vice-President Mike Pence told reporters on Capitol Hill that the dismissal was "the President's decision to accept the recommendation of the Deputy Attorney-General and the Attorney-General".
ON THE SAME DAY
Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Mr Trump had been thinking about letting Mr Comey go since winning the presidential election, but Mr Rosenstein had independently decided to review Mr Comey's conduct and had approached Mr Trump with his concerns.
ON WEDNESDAY EVENING
The White House released a new timeline of events. According to this version, Mr Trump had in recent weeks been "strongly inclined to remove" Mr Comey.
It added that Mr Trump had met Justice Department officials, and discussed reasons for removing Mr Comey.
But it said Mr Trump had made his final decision only after getting written recommendations from Mr Rosenstein and Mr Sessions.
In an interview with NBC News, Mr Trump called Mr Comey "a showboat" and contradicted the earlier versions of events.
" I was going to fire Comey - my decision," Mr Trump told NBC. "I was going to fire regardless of recommendation."
LATER ON THURSDAY
Ms Sanders repeated the official White House timeline and said Mr Trump had already made up his mind to let Mr Comey go before meeting Mr Sessions and Mr Rosenstein. She said she had not asked Mr Trump that question directly before the previous day's briefing.
ON FRIDAY MORNING
In response to media criticism over the contradictory versions of Mr Comey's dismissal, Mr Trump tweeted: "As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!
"Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future press briefings and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???"
SOURCES: NY TIMES, WASHINGTON POST
Mr McCabe, a 21-year veteran of the bureau, made an effort during Senate testimony on Thursday to dispute White House assertions that his former boss had lost the trust of FBI rank-and-file workers.
"Director Comey enjoyed broad support in the FBI and still does to this day," Mr McCabe told the US Senate Intelligence Committee. He also said working with Mr Comey was "the greatest privilege and honour of my professional life".
Mr Trump seemed to acknowledge that the Russia probe might touch people once close to him, taking pains to point out in an interview with NBC News that Mr Comey assured him three times that he was not in trouble - but offered no such assurance regarding others in his campaign.
"I know that I'm not under investigation. Me. Personally," Mr Trump told NBC News anchor Lester Holt. "I'm not talking about campaigns. I'm not talking about anything else."
The clash between the President and the nation's premier law enforcement agency continued a week of high drama in Washington.
As the White House's explanations kept shifting for how and why Mr Comey was fired, the administration at one point cited a memo written by Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein laying out the argument against Mr Comey without calling for his dismissal.
Yet, Mr Trump dispatched that explanation, saying he would have fired the director regardless of what his top Justice Department officials said.
Also caught in the middle are career FBI agents and investigators unaccustomed to being in the public spotlight.
Mr Trump's justifications for firing Mr Comey have raised key questions about possible politicisation of law enforcement. In a letter on Tuesday to Mr Comey, Mr Trump said the director had on three occasions assured him that he was not under investigation. If true, that would be a breach of FBI norms against discussing ongoing cases.
Mr McCabe, under questioning by Republican Senator Richard Burr on Thursday, said he could not comment on any conversations that Mr Comey "may have had with the President".
He added that it would not be standard practice to tell someone they were not the target of a probe and he vowed not to do so for Mr Trump or other White House officials.
In the NBC interview, Mr Trump said he had reached the conclusion that "this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story".
"The Fake Media is working overtime today!" Mr Trump tweeted yesterday morning. "Again, the story that there was collusion between the Russians & Trump campaign was fabricated by Dems as an excuse for losing the election."
But Mr McCabe assured lawmakers that he will not allow the probe to be cut short, especially for political reasons, saying: "The investigation will move forward, absolutely."
White House defends Trump’s remarks about Comey. str.sg/46Mt