WASHINGTON – In his first appearance as acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe told a Senate panel Thursday that the abrupt dismissal of Director James Comey has not impeded the bureau's ongoing inquiry into possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government.
"Simply put, you cannot not stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing,'' McCabe assured the Senate Intelligence Committee. McCabe was appointed to lead the bureau following President Trump's abrupt firing of Comey on Tuesday. "We don't curtail our activities. We continue to focus on our mission to get the job done.''
In firing Comey, President Trump said he appreciated the former director's three separate assurances that he was not under FBI investigation.
Senators appeared concerned about whether the White House might try to interfere with the investigation in Comey's absence.
Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., the panel's top Democrat, asked McCabe if he would promise to alert the panel if the White House seeks to "quash the (Russia) investigation."
The acting director replied: "I absolutely do."
McCabe said he met with the president earlier this week, but the Russia inquiry was not raised.
The acting director, however, told the Senate panel that the Russia inquiry represented "a highly significant'' aspect of the bureau's work, disputing recent White House assertions that it was a small and relatively unimportant part of the FBI's mission.
Although various officials, including Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., have said that Comey had requested additional resources for the Russia inquiry, McCabe said he was not aware of such a request. "I believe we have the the adequate resources to do it,'' McCabe said. "I can assure you we are covered.''
Warner, meanwhile, called Comey's dismissal a "shocking development."
"The timing of Director Comey’s dismissal to me and many committee members on both sides of the aisle is especially troubling... For many people, including myself, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the president’s decision to remove Director Comey was related to this investigation. And that is unacceptable.''
In defending Comey's firing earlier this week, the White House said that Comey had lost the confidence of the bureau due to his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server. Agents could no longer trust Comey, the White House said, after he made the unusual decision to hold a press conference in July announcing he would not charge the Democratic candidate – only to later publicly reopen the probe just 11 days before the November election.
But McCabe denied this was true, saying that Comey maintained broad support within the ranks of the FBI before his dismissal.
"I have worked very closely with Director Comey, and I can tell you that I hold Director Comey in the absolute highest regard,'' the acting director said. Agents' support for the former director continues "to this day," McCabe added.
McCabe did, however, acknowledge that a faction within the bureau were "frustrated'' by Comey's decision not to recommend criminal charges following the bureau's investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails.
"They were very vocal about their concerns,'' he said.
The Senate panel, which is conducting a separate congressional inquiry into Russia's interference in the 2016 election, announced late Wednesday that it sent a subpoena to Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn for information about his communications with Russian officials that might be relevant to the panel’s inquiry.
Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., and vice chairman Warner said that Flynn had declined an earlier request to provide the records voluntarily.
"The committee first requested these documents in an April 28, 2017 letter to... Flynn, but he declined, through counsel, to cooperate with the committee’s request,'' the panel leaders said.
Flynn was fired by President Donald Trump in February, after news reports revealed that the former Army lieutenant general lied to administration officials about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak before the inauguration.
Flynn and other former Trump advisers Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Roger Stone also are subjects of the FBI inquiry, the Senate Intelligence inquiry and a separate review by the House Intelligence Committee.
While Flynn's attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the subpoena, he has previously offered to provide testimony to the FBI and to the congressional panels in exchange for immunity against prosecution. But his request was denied by lawmakers and federal investigators, who say it is too early to consider such an offer.
Earlier this week, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates told a separate Senate panel that she was so troubled that Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence about his December conversations with the Russian ambassador that she warned the White House counsel that Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail and could even face criminal charges.
At separate Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, strongly suggested that Comey had indeed recently briefed its members that Trump was not a target of the FBI's inquiry.
Lawmakers are prohibited from revealing the contents of classified briefings, but he urged that the FBI make the status of its investigation public.
"Mr. Comey did brief (ranking committee Democrat) Feinstein and me on who the targets of the various investigations are,'' Grassley said. "It would not be appropriate for me to reveal those details before the professionals conducting the investigations are ready. I will not answer any questions about who are targets of the ongoing Russia investigations.
"But I will say this: Shortly after Director Comey briefed us, I tweeted that he should be transparent," Grassley continued. "Now Mr. Comey is no longer the FBI director, but the FBI...should confirm to the public whether it is or is not investigating the President. Because it has failed to make this clear, speculation has run rampant."
Contributing: David Jackson