President Trump has once again changed his story on when and why he fired James Comey, saying he had decided to fire the FBI director even before he received a memo from the deputy attorney general laying out the case for dismissing Comey.
“What I did is I was going to fire Comey, my decision,” Trump said during an interview Thursday with NBC News’ Lester Holt. “I was going to fire regardless of recommendation. He made a recommendation. He’s highly respected. Very good guy, very smart guy, the Democrats like him, the Republicans like him, he made a recommendation. But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”
That explanation is the simplest and perhaps the most credible one yet, but it is the third different story the White House has offered. When Comey’s abrupt dismissal was announced on Tuesday, Trump wrote in a letter to Comey that he had decided to accept Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s recommendation of firing. A White House statement said the same. That recommendation was based on Comey’s public handling of an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email account and server.
On Wednesday, however, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered a slightly different answer: Trump had long contemplated firing Comey, but his final decision came on Tuesday, based on several factors, including Rosenstein’s memo and several factual errors that Comey made during testimony to the Senate last week.
Later on Wednesday, Vice President Pence said the same. “The president’s decision to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general to remove Director Comey as the head of the FBI was based solely and exclusively on his commitment to the best interests of the American people and to ensuring that the FBI has the trust and confidence of the people this nation,” he said.
In conversation with Holt, however, Trump contradicted Pence and Sanders’s explanations for Comey’s dismissal, saying his decision was made before he received the memo.
“He's a showboat, he’s a grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil,” Trump said of Comey.
The president also insisted that Comey had told him on three separate occasions that he was not personally under investigation by the FBI, reprising an assertion he made in his letter to Comey. “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,” Trump wrote.
Trump narrated those three occasions to Holt. The first came at a dinner between the two men in which Trump said Comey seemed to be trying to keep his job, in the face of Trump’s public criticism.
“I had dinner with him,” Trump said. “He wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on … 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.”
Trump acknowledged that Comey has said the FBI is investigating links between his campaign and Russia, but said he was not personally involved, and that Comey had reiterated that in two separate phone calls. “In one case I called him and one case he called me,” the president said.
It is impossible to verify Trump’s account, because Comey has not spoken publicly. Trump’s account suggest a perhaps uncomfortable dynamic of a man seeking to keep his job tells his boss that the boss isn’t under investigation. Senator Charles Grassley also implied during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing today that Comey had told him Trump was not personally under investigation.
Nonetheless, the central role of the Russia probe in Comey’s firing, while apparent from the start, is beginning to come into sharper focus. The White House’s initial explanation for the firing—that Comey had been too harsh in his handling of Hillary Clinton—made little sense, particularly since Trump had previously said he was too lenient.
The New York Times, Washington Post, and Politico all report that Trump was upset about Comey’s announcement, during a March hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, that the FBI was investigating ties between the campaign and Russia. He was also infuriated by Comey’s assertion during that hearing that Trump’s evidence-free accusation that Barack Obama had “wiretapped” him was, in fact, without evidence. Trump was upset that Comey was not giving more attention to leaks to the press.
Overall, he seemed to regard Comey’s independence as a threat—in particular, Reuters reports, Comey’s refusal to preview testimony to Congress for the White House. The Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI probe had become more active recently, and that Comey was being briefed daily instead of weekly.
If Trump hoped that removing Comey as FBI director would solve these problems, he must be painfully disappointed—at least in the short term. Not only has the row brought new attention to the Russia probe, and even more of the leaks that Trump detests so much, but during Senate testimony on Thursday, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe indicated that he’s likely to rub Trump the wrong way in many of the same ways his old boss did.
Filling in for Comey, who had been scheduled to appear before his sacking, McCabe called the Russia investigation “highly significant.” He also promised senators that he would not inform the president about any ongoing investigations. McCabe said that there had been no political interference in the Russia probe so far (though one’s view of that assessment depends on one’s interpretation of Comey’s firing), but he vowed to inform members of the Senate Intelligence Committee if there was any, as well as to ask them if needed more resources. McCabe said he could not comment on Comey’s conversations with Trump.
McCabe did align with the White House on one key issue: He said there was no need for a special prosecutor to take over the case. But he also disputed one of the White House’s justifications for Comey’s firing, that the FBI was in chaos and that employees wanted Comey gone. In addition to Trump’s remarks to Holt, Sanders said on Wednesday, “Most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director.”
“No sir, that is not accurate,” McCabe said. “I hold Director Comey in the absolute highest regard. Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI.”
Of course, McCabe can be fired just as Comey was. The Daily Beast reports that some conservatives are already rallying for him to be removed from his post, and his name has not been mentioned as one of the contenders for the permanent job. As a lifelong FBI agent, however, he is thought to enjoy significant rank-and-file support.
The Senate Intelligence Committee hearing where McCabe testified was briefly interrupted by another bizarre moment. During the course of the hearing, Chairman Richard Burr and Ranking Member Mark Warner briefly stepped out to meet with Rosenstein, who had come to speak with them. The reason and content of that discussion were not immediately clear, and a Justice Department spokeswoman said it was “nothing unusual.”
Rosenstein, like McCabe, is a career lawman suddenly thrust directly into the political glare. His own role in the Comey firing is unclear. Initially, the White House portrayed his memo recommending dismissal as coming of his own volition. On Wednesday, Sanders said that Rosenstein had been at the White House on Monday for meetings and has asked to speak with Trump about Comey. Rosenstein expressed his concerns, Sanders said, and Trump asked him to put them in writing. During his interview with Holt, Trump dodged a question about whether and when he asked Rosenstein for the memo.
The Washington Post, however, reported that Rosenstein had been ordered to produce the memo, and that he had threatened to resign—barely two weeks into the job—after being portrayed as the motivating force for Comey’s firing.
The president has now put any of those questions to rest by claiming the decision to fire Comey as his alone. Then again, since that’s at least the third story the White House has offered in as many days, any explanation is subject to revision.