“It’s insane. The whole thing is just insane.” — Anonymous White House official.
By now, you are probably aware that President Trump fired the director of the FBI Tuesday afternoon — and that his decision and the way it was executed were both bonkers, for a variety of reasons.
But there are so many insane aspects to the events of the last 24 hours, it can be hard to wrap one’s mind around all of them at once. Fortunately, news days like this are precisely why God gave us listicles.
Here is a comprehensive rundown of all the reasons why Trump’s firing of James Comey is an extraordinary shit show, even by our president’s formidable standards.
1. The president just fired the man tasked with overseeing the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The president has the authority to fire the director of the FBI. But before Tuesday, that authority had only been exercised once — and in that case, Bill Clinton only fired William S. Sessions after a Justice Department investigation found him guilty of flagrant ethical violations.
Historically, presidents have avoided firing the head of the FBI out of respect for federal law enforcement’s independence. After all, FBI directors serve ten-year terms precisely to ensure a measure of distance from the Oval Office’s occupant.
Thus, firing an FBI director before any internal investigation produced a report of wrongdoing would be precedent-breaking and extraordinary — doing so at a time when the FBI director was investigating the president’s campaign is astounding, and an affront to the rule of law.
2. Trump publicly suggested that he fired the FBI director precisely because he disapproved of Comey’s investigation into his campaign — a statement that arguably constituted a confession of obstruction of justice.
Naturally, the White House worked strenuously to deny that there was any relationship between the investigation into the Trump campaign and Comey’s departure. Every administration surrogate from the press secretary to the vice-president insisted that the firing had nothing to do with the investigation into Russia — and that the personnel change had actually been pushed by the deputy attorney general, not the president (more on those efforts below).
And yet, on Thursday night, the president of the United States publicly suggested that he (unilaterally) decided to fire the FBI director because he disapproved of the investigation Comey was leading.
“I was going to fire him regardless of recommendation,” Trump said in an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt. “And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ This was an excuse for having lost the election.”
3. The president had (reportedly) asked the head of federal law enforcement to pledge personal loyalty to him. When news of this request leaked, Trump tried to intimidate Comey into silence with a tweet.
On Thursday night, associates of James Comey told the New York Times that Trump had demanded the FBI director pledge loyalty to him at a private dinner. The meal came seven days into his presidency, and one day after Sally Yates warned the administration about Michael Flynn’s illicit conversation about sanctions with the Russian ambassador. Comey refused to take Trump’s loyalty oath.
Or so Comey’s associates say.
Surely, their narrative should be taken with grain of salt. After all, is there any reason to believe that the president would comport himself like an amateur authoritarian? It’s not like he just publicly tried to intimidate his former FBI director into silence by threatening to release secret recordings of their conversations — right?
4. The White House’s initial explanation for the firing insulted the intelligence of the American people.
Last October, Jeff Sessions applauded James Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation. The then-senator told Fox Business that the FBI director had an “absolute duty” to release his infamous October letter — and to make his controversial announcement explicating his rationale for not charging Clinton last July.
On Tuesday, Sessions advised the president that those two actions were so flagrantly inappropriate they were grounds for firing Comey.
5. The deputy attorney general who wrote the memo explaining the White House’s (initial) rationale for Comey’s firing (reportedly) threatened to resign after realizing that responsibility for the decision was being pinned on him and not Trump.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein outlined the case against Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation in a three-page memo. The White House then presented that memo to the public, and suggested that Trump and Sessions decided to fire Comey primarily on the basis of Rosenstein’s recommendation.
But as Rosenstein’s former colleague at the Justice Department, Eric Columbus, notes, the deputy attorney general’s memo never explicitly recommends Comey’s dismissal. And, of course, the decision to fire the FBI director began and ended with the president — not Rosenstein.
The career civil servant wasn’t eager to assume Trump’s responsibility: According to an administration source who spoke with ABC News, Rosenstein was “so upset with the White House for pinning the firing of FBI Director James Comey on him Wednesday that he was on the verge of resigning.”
6. Trump admitted Thursday that Rosenstein’s memo was just a façade — he was going to fire Comey for being a “showboat” who sowed “turmoil” at the FBI, no matter what the Justice Department recommended.
“Look, he’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil,” Trump said in his interview with Holt. “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.”
7. While trying to defend Trump’s claim about the FBI, the deputy press secretary accidentally confessed to a serious breach of Justice Department protocol.
On Thursday, acting FBI director Andrew McCabe disputed the notion that Comey had plunged the bureau into turmoil. During sworn Senate testimony, McCabe said that Comey enjoyed “broad support within the FBI and still does to this day … The majority, the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep, positive connection to Director Comey.”
Nevertheless, Sarah Sanders stuck by the president’s account. “I’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the president’s decision,” the deputy press secretary told reporters. “Between like email, text messages — absolutely.”
The central problem with this claim isn’t that it’s implausible — although it is.
Rather, the main problem is that Sanders was a senior adviser on Trump’s campaign — which is currently under FBI investigation. For her to contact “countless” FBI agents in the current context would be a grave violation of Justice Department policy.
Watch Trump praise Comey in 2016 for how he handled the Clinton email probe.
8. Trump was (reportedly) furious at Comey for refusing to corroborate his baseless felony accusation against his predecessor.
One Saturday in early March, the president misread a couple of news reports, and then publicly announced that Barack Obama had illegally wiretapped him during the 2016 election. He later admitted that he had no basis for making that allegation, beyond a series of newspaper articles that did not substantiate his claim in any way. Nonetheless, one reason the president wanted to fire Comey, according to Politico, was that the “FBI director wouldn’t support his claims that President Barack Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower.”
9. He also, reportedly, believed it was the FBI director’s job to declare him innocent of all wrongdoing — and focus the bureau’s resources on tracking down leakers — if the president ordered him to do so.
As The Wall Street Journal reports:
The more James Comey showed up on television discussing the FBI’s investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, the more the White House bristled, according to aides to President Donald Trump.
Frustration was growing among top associates of the president that Mr. Comey, in a series of appearances before a Senate panel, wouldn’t publicly tamp down questions about possible collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race. A person with knowledge of recent conversations said they wanted Mr. Comey to “say those three little words: ‘There’s no ties.’”
Meanwhile, the White House was fuming about Comey’s failure to prosecute leakers, according to the Washington Post:
Several current and former officials said the relationship between the White House and the FBI had been strained for months, in part because administration officials were pressuring Comey to more aggressively pursue leak investigations over disclosures that embarrassed the White House and raised questions about ties with Russia.
10. The president apparently wants an FBI director who would relish the thought of rigging an election in his favor.
11. The president began the second paragraph of his letter to Comey with the phrase, “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, 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 (supposedly) had with Comey.
12. … Comey’s associates say he told Trump no such thing.
13. Comey (reportedly) requested additional resources for the Russia investigation days before he was dismissed.
Surely, this is a coincidence:
Days before he was fired, James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, asked the Justice Department for a significant increase in money and personnel for the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election, according to three officials with knowledge of his request.
14. Hours before Comey’s firing, CNN learned that federal prosecutors had issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Such crazy timing:
Federal prosecutors have issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn seeking business records, as part of the ongoing probe of Russian meddling in last year’s election, according to people familiar with the matter. CNN learned of the subpoenas hours before President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey.
The subpoenas represent the first sign of a significant escalation of activity in the FBI’s broader investigation begun last July into possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia.
15. Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation — and then advised the president to fire the man leading the Russia investigation.
In early March, the attorney general announced, “I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States.”
16. The president sent his personal bodyguard to fire the director of the FBI.
In addition to the security force provided to the president by taxpayers, Trump retains a guard loyal only to him.
17. Most of the White House staff learned of the decision by seeing it reported on television.
The administration approached the task of firing the FBI director with less care and forethought than schoolchildren tend to display when organizing pickup games of kickball. As Axios reports:
The firing was done in such haste that his own comms shop couldn’t catch up, and the vast majority of White House staff learned about it on TV when the news broke, per White House sources. There was a meeting in Spicer’s office with about 20 staffers after they announced the news, which happened as Chuck Schumer was on TV giving his response to the news of the firing.
This level of disorganization testifies either to the administration’s astounding incompetence or else to the urgency with which it needed to dispatch the FBI director. And it is hard to think of a benign explanation for why the White House would have felt such an urgency.
18. Comey also learned of his firing from television — in the middle of a speech to FBI employees in Los Angeles.
According to the paper of record:
Mr. Comey was addressing a group of F.B.I. employees in Los Angeles when a television in the background flashed the news that he had been fired.In response, Mr. Comey laughed, saying he thought it was a fairly funny prank. Then his staff started scurrying around in the background and told Mr. Comey that he should step into a nearby office.
19. The White House press secretary was so uncomfortable defending the firing he hid from reporters in the bushes, only emerging once they agreed to turn off the lights so they couldn’t film him.
Per the Washington Post:
After Spicer spent several minutes hidden in the bushes behind these sets, Janet Montesi, an executive assistant in the press office, emerged and told reporters that Spicer would answer some questions, as long as he was not filmed doing so. Spicer then emerged.
Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,” he ordered. “We’ll take care of this … Can you just turn that light off?”
20. Spicer later demanded the Post issue this crucial correction.
21. Trump’s other top surrogate directly contradicted the White House’s official rationale for the firing.
“This has nothing to do with the campaign from six months ago,” Kellyanne Conway told Anderson Cooper Tuesday night. “This has everything to do with the performance of the FBI director since the president has been in the White House.”
Deputy Attorney General Ron Rosenstein’s memo explaining the rationale for the firing insisted that it had everything to do with the campaign from six months ago.
22. In light of all these messaging failures, the president proposed abolishing press briefings so as to improve transparency.
The crazy thing (or, rather, a crazy thing) about these tweets is that Trump didn’t just contradict the verbal statements of his surrogates in his interview with NBC News — he contradicted his own written explanation of the Comey firing.
In his letter to the FBI director, Trump suggested that he had merely rubber-stamped a decision made by the Justice Department, writing, “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, I have accepted their recommendation.”
23. The White House (reportedly) believed that firing the guy leading an investigation into the Trump campaign would inspire accolades from elected Democrats and yawns from the media.
As Politico reports:
[T]he fallout seemed to take the White House by surprise. Trump made a round of calls around 5 p.m., asking for support from senators.
White House officials believed it would be a “win-win” because Republicans and Democrats alike have problems with the FBI director, one person briefed on their deliberations said. Instead, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told him he was making a big mistake — and Trump seemed “taken aback,” according to a person familiar with the call.
By Tuesday evening, the president was watching the coverage of his decision and frustrated no one was on TV defending him, a White House official said. He wanted surrogates out there beating the drum. Instead, advisers were attacking each other for not realizing the gravity of the situation as events blew up.
The president ostensibly thought that a good way to defuse media speculation about his Russia ties would be to fire the man tasked with investigating them, the night before his meeting with Russia’s foreign minister.
24. Speaking of which: The president freaking met with Russia’s foreign minister the day after Comey’s dismissal — despite the fact that Putin’s regime is widely suspected of abetting an attempt to interfere with the French election last week.
Beyond the insane optics of taking the meeting with Sergey Lavrov less than 24 hours after dispatching Comey, the Russian foreign minister’s visit was inappropriate for the message it sends to our allies in Paris: Just this week, the NSA announced that it believes Russian agents tried to “penetrate” France’s electoral “infrastructure.”
25. For advice on what to do about Comey, Trump (reportedly) turned to longtime confidante Roger Stone — a (reported) subject of the FBI’s investigation.
Stone has admitted to exchanging direct messages on Twitter with an account run by Russian hackers. He also published this tweet shortly before John Podesta’s hacked emails leaked.
Trump denies that he sought Stone’s opinion of the FBI director, but multiple outlets have reported otherwise.
26. After a long night of Nixon analogies, reporters discovered Trump with Henry Kissinger Wednesday morning.
27. A source close to the FBI director is saying that Comey was fired because he failed to demonstrate loyalty to Trump — and was making too much progress on his investigation.
28. The FBI director had (reportedly) become increasingly concerned by evidence of collusion between Trump associates and Russia.