When President Trump announced the firing of FBI Director James Comey Tuesday night, the rationale seemed straightforward enough—if also nonsensical. In announcing the dismissal, the White House issued a statement saying Trump had acted on the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. It also attached a memo from Rosenstein, laying out a critique of Comey for breaking rules in his handling of an investigation of Hillary Clinton.
That explanation made little sense, as I wrote earlier Wednesday. Trump had praised some of the behavior that he used to justify firing Comey, and he had argued at other times for stronger actions than those that he now deemed overreach.
At a packed White House briefing Wednesday afternoon White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered some new explanations and some more detailed ones for how Trump reached his decision. The new narrative helps explain the president’s decision better, but also raises new and troubling questions.
Sanders, filling in for Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who is fulfilling Navy Reserve duties, said that Trump had in fact lost confidence in Comey over a period of time, a gradual erosion. She denied a New York Times report that Trump had asked the Justice Department to concoct a rationale for firing Comey, and said he had not requested that Rosenstein write his memo.
“No, the president had lost … confidence in Director Comey and frankly he’d been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected,” Sanders said.
Yet moments later Sanders suggested that Trump had in fact asked for the memo. Rosenstein and Sessions were at the White House on Monday discussing an unrelated matter, she said, when Rosenstein asked to speak with Trump about Comey. He then laid out his concerns, and the president asked him to put them in writing. After receiving the memo the following day, on Tuesday, Trump decided to fire Comey.
Sanders repeated the idea that Comey was fired for breaking the chain of command at the Department of Justice during the Clinton investigation—what she called, in an unfortunate word choice, “atrocities.” At the same time, however, Sanders offered new reasons for the firing, including Comey’s failure to prevent leaks of sensitive information from the FBI and a pair of factual errors the director made while testifying before a Senate panel last week, which the FBI corrected in a letter to members on Tuesday. Those were “a final piece that pushed the president to make the decision,” Sanders said.
This explanation makes more sense than the idea that Trump fired Comey for being too mean to Hillary Clinton. It also matches up with what Kellyanne Conway said on CNN last night—“This has nothing to do with the campaign from six months ago. This has everything to do with the performance of the FBI director since the president has been in the White House”—as well as with Trump’s own comments to that effect this morning. But it brings with it new questions. For example, why did the documents the White House released cite only the Clinton investigation if in fact there were other reasons? And why, if Trump had lost confidence in Comey so long ago, did Spicer say last week that he had confidence in the FBI director?
In defending Comey’s firing, Trump has pointed out that Democrats were also highly critical of Comey. In what has proved in retrospect to be a tactical error, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said of Comey in November, “I do not have confidence in him any longer,” a comment Trump has cited. Sanders said Trump did not expect the backlash to the firing. “How could he have, considering the fact that most of the people declaring war today were the very ones that were begging for Director Comey to be fired?” she asked.
It is the case that Schumer and others could disapprove of Comey’s job performance while also being upset about the manner and timing of the dismissal, but if Trump fired Comey for reasons other than the Clinton investigation, that muddies the alleged hypocrisy.
The other problem for Trump is that he praised Comey’s decision to write to Congress in late October, informing members that the FBI had discovered new emails related to the Clinton case. “It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had where they’re trying to protect her from criminal prosecution,” Trump said at the time. “I was not his fan, but I’ll tell you what: What he did, he brought back his reputation. He brought it back.” Now Trump has fired Comey in part for the same acts he once praised.
Sanders had an explanation for this: Trump was acting as a candidate when he praised it, and he is acting as president now. This has both advantages and disadvantages. It isn’t hard to see how candidate Trump would like something that hurt his opponent. But if the candidate vs. president distinction provides cover for a politician to reverse every stance he or she takes on the trail, it also makes it the White House’s official line that Trump favored disregarding the chain of command when a candidate but opposes it now that he’s commander in chief.
Moreover, it’s hard to believe that Trump changed his mind about Comey’s handling of the case—because as recently as May 2, he was tweeting that Comey had gone too easy on Clinton:
FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds! The phony...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 3, 2017
...Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 3, 2017
Sanders also left several crucial questions unanswered. One of the stranger lines in Trump’s letter to Comey was this sentence: “While I appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.” The line was peculiar, both because it suggested a causal link between Comey’s alleged clearing of Trump and his employment status, but also because it suggested that Comey had told Trump privately, on three occasions, something he had not said publicly—and perhaps that Trump was actively seeking or receiving non-public information about an ongoing investigation. Sanders said she could not comment on what those three occasions might have been.
She also said that she did not believe Trump was aware of a request from Comey for additional resources on the Russia investigation. Multiple outlets reported Wednesday that Comey had made such a request to Rosenstein in recent days, though the Justice Department has flatly denied that is true.
Sanders said the White House hoped the FBI would continue its investigation into Russia so as to clear the president, and said the White House did not believe a special counsel, which many Democrats now demand, was necessary.
The White House’s newer, more detailed explanation for Trump’s firing of Comey is starting to make more sense, but it remains inconsistent, and doesn’t explain why he didn’t cite those reasons in his initial announcement. The White House’s inability to get its story straight is hardly the most pressing question to emerge from the firing, but it is perplexing. Perhaps Comey, who has been invited to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee next week, will be able to clear up some of those questions.