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Acting FBI chief contradicts Trump over Bureau support for Comey

[WASHINGTON] The acting head of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, contradicted White House assertions that the agency's rank-and-file had lost confidence in James Comey, who was fired as the bureau's director by President Donald Trump this week.

"I can tell you Director Comey enjoyed broad support in the FBI and still does to this day," Mr McCabe said in a response to a question at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday. Mr McCabe, who took office May 9 after Mr Comey was dismissed, also said "I can tell you that I hold Director Comey in the absolute highest regard."

Mr McCabe was making his first public appearance since Mr Comey was fired. Many Democrats have questioned whether his dismissal was connected to the bureau's continuing probe of Russia's role in the presidential election. Mr McCabe promised to tell lawmakers if he comes under any political pressure that interferes with the continuing investigation into possible links between Russia and associates of Mr Trump.

"I absolutely do," he said.

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Mr Comey's dismissal quickly took centre stage at the Senate hearing on global threats faced by the US, with the panel's top Republican also pressing the interim FBI chief over statements made by Mr Trump in his letter dismissing the nation's top law enforcement officer this week.

North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, who is leading his committee's investigation into possible ties between Russia and Mr Trump's aides and campaign officials, issued a pointed query to Mr McCabe early in the Thursday hearing: "Did you ever hear Director Comey tell the president he was not the subject of an investigation."

Mr McCabe demurred, saying he "can't comment on any conversations the director may have had with the president." Mr Burr's question was a reference to the May 9 letter Mr Trump wrote to Mr Comey, in which he made a reference to the bureau's Russia probe. Mr Trump wrote "While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau."

The question about Mr Comey's support stemmed from an assertion made Wednesday by White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders that part of the justification for Mr Comey's dismissal was that FBI employees had lost faith in their boss.

"The President, over the last several months, lost confidence in Director Comey," Ms Sanders said during the daily White House briefing. "The DOJ lost confidence in Director Mr Comey. Bipartisan members of Congress made it clear that they had lost confidence in Director Comey. And most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director."

The Senate panel had originally been prepared to take testimony from Mr Comey, along with the director of national intelligence, the CIA chief and others, as part of its annual hearing on "Worldwide Threats". But with Mr Comey's dismissal, Mr McCabe took his place at the table.