The White House says that President Trump fired James Comey on Tuesday because he received a brief letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions calling for the FBI director’s dismissal. That letter relies on a longer memo in which Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein recommends that Comey be dismissed over his mishandling of the Hillary Clinton email scandal during the campaign. A White House spokesman told Politico that Trump did not request the letters, and had no idea that they were coming.
As New York contributor Roger Parloff notes, this memo might have made sense if it was issued on day one of the Trump administration. “But for it to suddenly come out on May 9, 2017, after the nation has watched and listened to Trump warmly defend and commend Comey’s conduct in countless tweets and interviews, renders its content simply incredible.”
Plus, the president’s short letter to Comey says nothing about the Clinton probe, but references the investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible Russia ties, saying, “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”
Sure enough, several outlets reported early on Wednesday morning that Comey’s dismissal was actually about Trump’s anger over the FBI’s Russia probe and Comey’s media appearances. The president has reportedly been mulling the move for at least a week — and maybe much longer. It appears this moment from January 22, when Trump greeted Comey by blowing him a kiss and commenting “Oh, and there’s James — he’s become more famous than me,” was a sign that Comey’s days as director were numbered.
According to The Wall Street Journal, in recent months Trump became irritated that Comey was receiving more media attention, and wasn’t using his newfound fame to quash the rumors about Trump’s Russia ties:
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.’”
Politico reports that Trump was particularly angry about Comey confirming to the Senate in March that the FBI had been investigating his campaign since last summer, and the director’s refusal to back up his claim that President Obama wiretapped him. He’d even taken to shouting at his TV over the Russia investigation:
He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.
Only a handful of top advisers, including Sessions and Rosenstein, knew Trump was planning to fire Comey. According to CNN, the pair started fine-tuning their rationale for firing Comey after they learned Trump wanted him gone.
It appears those in the know seriously underestimated the ramifications of the president dismissing the official leading an investigation into his campaign. Sources told Politico that the White House thought Comey’s firing would be “win-win,” since he’d been criticized by both Democrats and Republicans. Trump called several senators to inform them of his decision on Monday evening, and was reportedly “taken aback” when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told him he was making a huge mistake.
Nevertheless, Trump’s security aide Keith Schiller was sent to personally deliver Comey’s dismissal letter to FBI headquarters. Apparently the White House was unaware that Comey was in Los Angeles on Tuesday.
Like Comey himself, many top White House officials only learned what had happened from media reports. Yet Trump was reportedly annoyed that his staff was caught off guard:
One source familiar with the President’s reaction to TV coverage of the Comey firing told CNN that Trump was upset because he perceived that nobody was defending him on the cable networks. So he dispatched top communications aides Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders to appear on television to defend the White House, the source said.
While Trump is known to put a lot of stock in how things play on cable news, in general the White House doesn’t seem all that concerned about the optics of the situation. Hours after the news broke, the White House announced that Trump will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday, and a Justice Department official suggested that there could be more firings.
“There is a lot of cleaning house that needs to be done,” the official said.