When news first broke that Donald Trump had abruptly fired the man leading the investigation into his campaign’s suspected collusion with a hostile foreign power, the administration was (understandably) eager to downplay the president’s role in that extraordinary personnel change.
Trump did not push for James Comey’s ouster, according to the White House’s initial statements. Rather, the president merely followed the unsolicited guidance of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — who felt that the FBI director’s mishandling of the Clinton email investigation had jeopardized the public’s confidence in the bureau.
In his letter to Comey, Trump painted his part in the firing in passive terms.
“I have received the attached letters from the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General of the United States recommending your dismissal as the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” the president wrote. “I have accepted their recommendation and you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.”
The idea that Trump fired Comey because Rod Rosenstein felt the FBI director had been too tough on “Crooked Hillary” was, of course, implausible. And reams of subsequent reporting suggest that Comey was fired because he refused to comport himself as Donald Trump’s personal detective.
Still, pushing the Rosenstein story had clear virtues for the administration: Rosenstein’s recent arrival at the Justice Department provided an explanation for the move’s odd timing; and framing the firing as the decision of a widely respected civil servant — who is not currently the subject of an FBI investigation — made the move look less like an attempt at obstructing justice.
And so, White House surrogates insisted that Trump was just following orders.
Trump administration spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told MSNBC that the reason for Comey’s firing was ““real simple … The deputy attorney general made a very strong recommendation.”
Senior counselor Kellyanne Conway told Fox News that Comey’s fate was sealed by “the three letters that were received today.”
Vice-president Pence, for his part, said Wednesday that “the president took strong and decisive leadership … by accepting the recommendation of the deputy attorney general to remove Director Comey as the head of the FBI.”
But Rosenstein did not appreciate being cast in the affair’s starring role – and Donald Trump always wants to play the lead.
“I was going to fire him regardless of recommendation,” Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt Thursday. “Look, he’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago — it hasn’t recovered from that.”
The FBI’s acting director Andrew McCabe disputed this characterization of his bureau Thursday. “Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day,” McCabe said in testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Watch Trump call Comey a “showboat” on NBC Nightly News.
In his letter to Comey, Trump wrote that the FBI director informed him “on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.” Trump reiterated this claim in his interview with Holt. But he also said that he had specifically solicited such assurances from the FBI director — a breach of protocol and ostensible confession that the president was worried the FBI might have some cause to investigate him, personally.
“I said, if it’s possible would you let me know, ‘Am I under investigation?’ ‘You are not under investigation,’” Trump told Holt, summarizing a conversation he had with Comey.
The president claimed that the FBI director had provided this assurance three times — once over dinner, twice over the phone. If true, these actions would represent profound malfeasance on Comey’s part. Justice Department rules forbid FBI agents from sharing the details of active criminal investigations with the White House.