'Really?!': Reporters mercilessly grill White House spokeswoman over ever-shifting claims on James Comey firing

Sarah Huckabee SandersMark Wilson/Getty ImagesSarah Huckabee Sanders.

A top White House spokeswoman was grilled by reporters during Thursday’s White House press briefing — one that came as several White House storylines were disproven or thrown into doubt by acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and even President Donald Trump himself.

The briefing came after McCabe, in testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, rebuked the White House claim that rank-and-file FBI agents supported the decision to oust FBI Director James Comey earlier this week.

And just an hour earlier, Trump dispelled the White House storyline, advanced by officials as high as Vice President Mike Pence, that Trump decided to oust Comey at the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Instead, Trump said he was going to fire Comey regardless of any recommendation.

Trump also called Comey a “showboat” and a “grand-stander,” and explained the curious claim from his letter firing Comey that the FBI director told him on three occasions that he was not under investigation. Comey’s bureau was leading an investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials to swing the November presidential election, and critics have accused Trump of ousting Comey to help end the investigation.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House deputy press secretary, was relentlessly pressed with a barrage of questions on those subjects.

“You said now today, and I think you said again yesterday, that you personally have talked to countless FBI officials employees since this happened,” a reporter asked, referring to Sanders’ claim Wednesday that the FBI’s rank-and-file supported Comey’s dismissal.

“Correct,” she responded.

“I mean, Really?!” the reporter shot back.

Sanders said that “between email, text messages” she “absolutely” heard from many agents who agreed with the president’s decision.

The reporter asked for a number.

“50? 60? 70?” he asked.

“Look, we’re not going to get into a numbers game,” Sanders said. “I have heard from a large number of individuals who work at the FBI who said they’re very happy with the president’s decision.”

Sanders was asked earlier about what led her and the White House to “believe” Comey “lost the confidence of the FBI when [McCabe] says it’s exactly the opposite.”

“Well, I can speak to my own personal experience,” she said. “I’ve heard from countless members of the FBI who’re grateful for the president’s decision. You know, we may have to agree to disagree. I’m sure there are some people who are disappointed. But I’ve certainly heard from a large number of individuals, and that’s just myself. And I don’t even know that many people in the FBI.”

A reporter brought up how Pence said repeatedly Wednesday that Trump made his decision because of Rosenstein’s recommendation, a point that Trump himself contradicted during his interview with NBC’s Lester Holt.

“That doesn’t mean he still wouldn’t accept his recommendation,” Sanders said. “I mean, why are we arguing about the semantics of whether or not he accepted it? They agreed!”

“I’m not sure how he didn’t accept the deputy attorney general’s recommendation when they agreed with each other,” she continued.

Sanders said it was “frankly … kind of sad” that Democrats didn’t unite with the White House on the Comey issue.

Democrats had criticised Comey for his handling of the investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she served as secretary of state under President Barack Obama. Rosenstein used that rationale to explain why he should be fired in a letter he addressed to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“Democrats want to play partisan games, and I think that’s the most glaring thing that’s being left out of all of your process stories,” she told the White House correspondents.

Asked if she felt the president asking a sitting FBI director about whether he was under investigation was a conflict of interest or unethical, Sanders said she did not believe it was.

“I don’t see that as a conflict of interest, and neither do the legal scholars and others that have been commenting on it for the last hour,” she said. “So no, I don’t see that as an issue.”

On Trump calling Comey a “showboat” and a “grand-stander,” Sanders said it was “probably based on the numerous appearances that he made.”

“And I think that it’s probably pretty evident in his behaviour over the last year or so with the back-and-forth and I think that it speaks pretty clearly,” she said. “Those words don’t leave a lot of room for interpretation, so I think it’s pretty clear what he meant.”

After saying the firing encouraged the White House to have more confidence the investigation into Russian interference could be completed, a reporter asked how that could be if Trump “just fired the man who was overseeing the Russia investigation?”

“There are multiple people that are a part of this and it’s not just the FBI,” Sanders said. “You’ve got the House committee, the Senate committee and, look, again, the point is we want this to come to its conclusion, we want this to come to conclusion with integrity, and we think that we’ve actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.”

She said Comey was fired “because he was not fit to do the job.”

“It’s that simple,” Sanders said. “This shouldn’t be a complicated process. The president knew that Director Comey was not up to the task. He decided he wasn’t the right person in the job. He wanted somebody that could bring credibility back to the FBI that had been lost over this last several months. The president made that decision, he made it, he moved forward, it was the right one.”

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