Further confusing things is Trump’s use of scare quotes around tapes. It’s one of his typographical quirks, from a May 2 tweet that said “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!” to his infamous accusation that Barack Obama had his “wires tapped.” The president has since claimed that the scare quotes absolve him from accuracy in the accusation. (Could it be that Trump, while accusing Obama of surreptitiously recording his conversations, was actually doing so himself?)
The dinner in question was a meeting between Trump and Comey on or around January 27. Trump first disclosed the dinner on Thursday, during an interview with NBC News’s Lester Holt. The president has claimed that Comey told him on three separate occasions that he, Trump, was not personally under FBI investigation. Trump said the first of these was over a meal.
“I had dinner with him,” Trump said. “He wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on.”
Holt clarified: Comey has requested the dinner? Trump hedged, slightly:
“Dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head, and I said, ‘I'll consider it. We'll see what happens.’ But we had a very nice dinner, and at that time he told me you are not under investigation.”
But Thursday night, a New York Times story offered an alternative account, sourced to “several” associates of Comey’s. In their telling, Trump summoned Comey to dinner. The FBI director, who considered his independence paramount, waffled over the invitation, but ultimately decided to accept because he felt he could not turn down the president. NBC News has a similar account of the meal.
During the dinner, the Times reports, Trump bragged about his electoral victory, as he is wont to do, and asked Comey to pledge loyalty to him. Trump is famously demanding of loyalty from his employees, as my colleague McKay Coppins has written, but Comey reportedly felt uncomfortable making such a pledge. He told Trump he could offer “honesty,” but not necessarily loyalty.
“The conversation that night in January, Mr. Comey now believes, was a harbinger of his downfall this week as head of the F.B.I., according to two people who have heard his account of the dinner,” the Times reported.
In retrospect, Comey’s worries about independence appear to have been well-placed. During his interview with Holt, Trump said the FBI’s Russia investigation factored into his decision to fire Comey. A series of press reports have made the connection even more direct: The president was allegedly enraged by the probe, which he says is a “charade” and “a made-up story,” and hoped that firing the director would help change its course.
The FBI director’s job is structured to be partly insulated from political interference. On the one hand, there’s a concern about the director being too independent, lest he or she become like J. Edgar Hoover and be able to blackmail the president. On the other, no one wants the director of the bureau to be too easily bullied by a president who might want to interfere, and so the director gets one 10-year term. The president can fire him or her, but Comey is only the second director to get the heave-ho.