Despite what President Donald Trump said earlier in the day, James Comey did not seek a dinner with the president to retain his job, one current and one former FBI official close to Comey told NBC News Thursday evening.
The January dinner meeting between the two men, the sources said, was requested by the White House. And the former senior FBI official said Comey would never have told the president he was not under investigation — also contradicting what Trump said.
"He tried to stay away from it [the Russian-ties investigation]," said the former official, who worked closely with Comey and keeps in touch with him. "He would say, 'look sir, I really can't get into it, and you don't want me to.'"
A current FBI official confirmed that Comey did not request the one-on-one dinner, which happened at the White House a few days after Trump was sworn in.
In an exclusive interview with NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt earlier Thursday, Trump said he believed Comey requested the dinner. Trump said Comey asked that Trump keep him on as FBI director, and told the presidenrt on three occasions that he was not under investigation as part of the FBI's inquiry into Russian election interference.
"The president is not correct," the former official said. "The White House called him out of the blue. Comey didn't want to do it. He didn't even want the rank and file at the FBI to know about it."
But in the end, "He's still the commander in chief. He's your boss. How do you say no?"
The New York Times first reported Thursday night that Trump demanded during the dinner that Comey declare his loyalty to the president, and that Comey declined. Comey told Trump he would offer "honesty," The Times reported.
The current and former official could not confirm that account. But the former official said, "That is exactly how I would expect the director to answer."
The former official, like many current and former FBI officials interviewed by NBC News, said the bureau was reeling from the Comey firing. Not everyone agreed with each Comey decisions, but he was a popular and well-regarded director, they said.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed Thursday that she had heard from "countless members of the FBI who are grateful for the president's decision."
Current and former FBI agents scoffed at what they termed a ridiculous assertion.
"I doubt five people at the FBI even have the [phone] number of the deputy White House press secretary," the former senior official said.
NBC News reported Thursday that the White House abandoned an initial idea for Trump to visit FBI headquarters, after learning he would not be greeted warmly there.