Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon believes that his ex-boss, President Donald Trump, made the biggest mistake "maybe in modern political history" by firing FBI chief James Comey.
Comey was leading the Federal Bureau of Investigation's probe into Russian meddling in last year's election and allegations of collusion with the Trump campaign when the president ousted him on May 9. The White House at first said Trump had fired Comey for mishandling an investigation into the use of a private email server by Trump's Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
But within days, Trump undercut that explanation, telling NBC News he was thinking of "this Russia thing" when he decided to dismiss Comey as head of the country's top law enforcement agency.
Trump has long contended that his campaign did not collude with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign and that attempts to link it to Moscow amount to an excuse by rival Democrats to explain his upset win.
But eight days after Comey was fired, and over Trump's objections, the second-ranking Justice Department official, Rod Rosenstein, named another former FBI chief, Robert Mueller, as special counsel to head a criminal investigation into possible Trump campaign links with Russia and whether Trump obstructed justice by firing Comey.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that if James Comey had not been fired,” Bannon told the CBS news show 60 Minutes, “we would not have a special counsel. We would not have the Mueller investigation in the breadth that clearly Mr. Mueller is going for."
Bannon, a key figure late in Trump's populist election campaign, served as one of Trump's top White House advisers for seven months until he was pushed out last month by new chief of staff John Kelly as the retired Marine Corps general moved to instill discipline in the operations surrounding Trump.
Bannon immediately reclaimed his position as head of Breibart News, a far-right news website, where he says he plans to be the president's "wingman outside for the entire time" he is in office.
"Our purpose is to support Donald Trump," he said in the CBS interview. "I cannot take the fight to who we have to take the fight to when I’m an adviser to the president as a federal government employee."
Mueller has assembled a team of experienced federal prosecutors for his investigation, a probe that could last for months, and has convened a federal grand jury to hear evidence.
One focus of Mueller's investigation is a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York, the president's home and business headquarters, that was set up by Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., on the promise that a woman identified as a Russian government attorney would hand the Trump campaign damaging material about Clinton.
The president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, now a key White House adviser, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, also attended the meeting. But the younger Trump and Kushner have subsequently said the Russian attorney had no incriminating information about Clinton and that nothing came of the meeting.