The Trump administration’s rhetoric around the president’s decision to fire FBI director James Comey keeps changing, and it has led to one of the most tumultuous weeks in Trump’s young presidency so far.
- First, the White House said Trump fired Comey because the attorney general and deputy attorney general recommended it.
- Later, the president said he had been considering firing Comey for a while, and Rosenstein’s recommendation sealed the deal.
- After that, the president said he had already decided to fire Comey and that he was going to do it regardless of whether or not Rosenstein recommended it.
Comey was heading up an FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential ties to Russia when he was fired, and the timing of Trump’s decision led many to speculate over whether Trump fired Comey because he was upset about the Russia investigation.
The White House initially said the investigation was not a factor in Trump’s decision. On Tuesday, the White House’s official explanation was that Trump had acted based on the recommendation of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein and attorney general Jeff Sessions. In a memo to Sessions, Rosenstein criticised Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State. Rosenstein did not specifically recommend firing Comey in his memo.
Sessions forwarded Rosenstein’s memo to Trump and recommended that he remove Comey from his role. “Based on my evaluation, and for the reasons expressed by the Deputy Attorney General in the attached memorandum, I have concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI,” Sessions’ letter said.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer also reiterated during a news briefing that night that the decision to fire Comey was driven entirely by the Department of Justice and Rosenstein.
“As Spicer tells it, Rosenstein was confirmed about two weeks ago and independently took on this issue so the president was not aware of the probe until he received a memo from Rosenstein on Tuesday, along with a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommending that Comey be fired,” The Washington Post reported.
“It was all him,” Spicer said, referring to Rosenstein. “No one from the White House. That was a DOJ decision.”
The next day, Vice President Pence told reporters that Rosenstein had independently reviewed and recommended that Comey be fired.
Later, however, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Trump had actually been considering firing Comey for months, and that he had asked Sessions and Rosenstein for their recommendations.
“Isn’t it true that the president had already decided to fire James Comey and he asked the Justice Department to put together the rationale for that firing?” a reporter asked Huckabee on Wednesday. He was referring to a New York Times report that said White House and Justice Department officials had been tasked with “building a case” against Comey since at least last week, according to administration officials, and that Sessions had been tasked with coming up with reasons to fire him.
“No. … The final decision to move forward with it was yesterday. But I know that he’s been contemplating it for a while,” Sanders replied.
Trump, speaking to reporters that day, said that he fired Comey because Comey “wasn’t doing a good job. Very simple. He wasn’t doing a good job.”
The White House also released a timeline of the president’s decision-making process around Comey’s firing. Here’s what it said:
- “The President, over the last several months, lost confidence in Director Comey.
- After watching Director Comey’s testimony last Wednesday [May 3, 2017], the President was strongly inclined to remove him.
- On Monday [May 8, 2017], the President met with the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General and they discussed reasons for removing the Director.
- The next day, Tuesday May 9, the Deputy Attorney General sent his written recommendation to the Attorney General and the Attorney General sent his written recommendation to the President.”
The timeline directly contradicted the White House’s assertion that the president had acted solely based on the recommendations of Rosenstein and Sessions.
On Thursday, Trump told NBC News’ Lester Holt during an interview that he was going to fire Comey regardless of the DOJ’s recommendations. He added that the Russia investigation had been a factor in his decision.
When Holt asked Trump whether he’d asked Rosenstein for his recommendation the day before firing Comey, Trump replied: “What I did was, I was going to fire. My decision.”
“You’d made the decision before they came into the room?” Holt asked.
“I was going to fire Comey. There’s no time to do it,” Trump said.
“In your letter, you said, ‘I accept their recommendation,'” Holt said.
“Oh, I was going to fire, regardless of recommendation,” Trump said. “He made a recommendation, he’s highly respected — very good guy, very smart guy. And the Democrats like him, Republicans like him. He made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”
Later in the interview, Trump pointed to the Russia probe as a catalyst for his decision.
“In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘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,'” Trump told Holt.
In a press briefing that took place that day, Sanders diverged from her earlier statements and said that Trump’s meeting with Sessions and Rosenstein on Monday had “reaffirmed” his decision to fire Comey.
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