Two days after President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, the White House’s rationale for the stunning dismissal appeared to be falling apart Thursday.
New information, some released by the president himself, contradicted what White House officials had been saying for days.
White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and Press Secretary Sean Spicer, had said Trump fired Comey only after newly confirmed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote a memo on why he should be let go. But Trump told NBC News on Thursday that he’d already decided to fire Comey before Rosenstein’s memo was delivered.
“Regardless of the recommendation, I was going to fire Comey,” Trump told NBC anchor Lester Holt.
Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders had said Comey had lost the confidence of the FBI, an assertion Pence had repeated in interviews as he visited Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
But on Thursday, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe voiced “the absolute highest regard” for Comey and said the departed director enjoyed broad support among rank-and-file FBI agents.
“The vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep, positive connection to Director Comey,” McCabe told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
At the White House, where reporters peppered officials with questions about the firing for the third day in a row, Sanders defended her previous statements, accusing journalists of getting caught up in “process stories.”
But the revelations Thursday made it clear that the White House had not been accurate in its portrayal of the events surrounding one of the most politically sensitive actions Trump could have undertaken, and had not considered the political fallout sure to result.
Comey, with a reputation for integrity that dates to his days as deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush, had become the public face of the intelligence community’s efforts to get to the bottom of Russia’s meddling in last year’s U.S. presidential election. He was appointed to a 10-year term as FBI director by President Barack Obama in 2013, but Trump had the legal authority to dismiss him.
On March 20, Comey stunned the nation by announcing during congressional testimony that the FBI had been investigating possible links between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russians. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had been forced to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation because he’d met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Trump met Monday in the Oval Office with Sessions and Rosenstein, where he supposedly asked for a written summary of Comey’s performance, which White House officials had said guided the president’s decision.
But in the interview that aired Thursday, Trump said he’d decided to fire Comey before he met with Sessions and Rosenstein.
“He’s a showboat. He’s a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil,” Trump said. “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.”
That assertion was rebutted, however by McCabe, who took the FBI reins with Comey’s dismissal and appeared Thursday at a hearing with the heads of other agencies to discuss international threats to the U.S., where he heaped praise on his former boss.
Asked whether Comey had lost the confidence of rank-and-file employees at the bureau, as the White House had asserted, McCabe said: “No, sir, that is not accurate.” He said Comey “enjoyed broad support in the bureau, and still does to this day.”
“I can tell you that I hold Director Comey in the absolute highest regard,” McCabe said. “I have the highest respect for his considerable abilities and integrity, and it has been the greatest honor of my professional life to work with him.”
Trump has had a conflicted relationship with Comey since last summer, when Comey announced that he would not prosecute Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for what he termed her careless handling of classified information. Trump blasted that decision, and “lock her up” became a battle cry for the remainder of his political campaign.
When Trump won the election, however, he asked Comey to stay on as FBI director.
On Thursday, Sanders said Trump had been considering firing Comey since he was elected in November. She said he had been moved to act after watching Comey’s testimony before Congress on May 3, in which he defended his handling of the email probe.
In the NBC interview, Trump said he’d asked Comey whether he was under investigation on three occasions: two phone calls and a dinner.
“I actually asked him if I were under investigation,” Trump said. “I said, ‘If it’s possible, would you let me know: Am I under investigation?’ He said, ‘You are not under investigation.’ ”
Democrats immediately criticized Trump for talking to Comey about the investigation, a breach of protocol.
Democrats also targeted Sessions, a former U.S. senator who was the first among his peers to endorse Trump, for speaking to the president about the matter when he’d already recused himself from the case.
Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said they thought Sessions had violated the intent of the letter he signed when he removed himself from the investigation.
Democrats also targeted Rosenstein, a career prosecutor, saying he’d lost credibility over his three-page memo that laid out Comey’s transgressions and for conferring with Sessions and Trump on the topic. They called on him to appoint a special counsel to oversee the investigation.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., issued a statement criticizing Rosenstein’s memo as devoid of “meaningful analysis” and saying it reads “like a political document.”
“The memo appears to have been hastily assembled to justify a preordained outcome,” she said.
In a letter to Rosenstein, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., also raised the issue of Rosenstein’s contacts with Sessions, asking whether the two had discussed the appropriateness of Sessions participating in the decision to fire Comey.
“How do you reconcile Attorney General Sessions’ participation with his ethical obligations under the department’s recusal guidelines,” Schumer wrote. He asked Rosenstein for answers by Monday.
Rosenstein met later with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chairman, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and ranking Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia. Afterward, Burr told reporters that the meeting had been intended only to ensure that the committee’s own investigation into Russia would not interfere with the FBI’s probe.
But Warner said he had pressed Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel to investigate the Trump administration’s Russia ties. “One of the reasons I felt the need for an independent counsel was because of the, I think, very messy process that went through in the firing of Jim Comey,” Warner told reporters afterward.
Rosenstein hasn’t commented publicly since Comey’s firing, but he was asked Thursday about reports that he’d threatened to quit because the White House was portraying him as a main mover in Comey’s dismissal. Speaking briefly to television reporters Thursday, Rosenstein said he had not threatened to resign and added, “No, I am not quitting.”