Updated on May 10 at 11:45 a.m.
This much is clear: President Trump’s stated rationale for firing James Comey makes no sense.
The president justified the FBI director’s abrupt dismissal on Tuesday with a memo from Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, in which Rosenstein systematically laid out an indictment of how Comey handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email address and private email server while she was secretary of state. Rosenstein charged that Comey had “usurp[ed]” the attorney general’s authority by publicly recommending making no charges, overstepped his bounds by criticizing Clinton during a press conference, and then alerting Congress about newly found emails on the eve of the election.
These may be good reasons to question Comey’s leadership and even to remove him, but it is all but impossible to believe that Trump believes them, because Trump has criticized Comey for dealing with Clinton too lightly all along. The day that Comey announced he was not recommending charges against her, Trump tweeted:
FBI director said Crooked Hillary compromised our national security. No charges. Wow! #RiggedSystem— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2016
Notably, Comey’s lengthy dissection of Clinton’s errors in that news conference offered Trump lots of ammunition to attack her.
In October, Trump said—baselessly—that “what was just found out is the Department of Justice, the State Department, and the FBI colluded—got together—to make Hillary Clinton look less guilty and look a letter than she looks.”
In his memo, Rosenstein complained that Comey had broken “the longstanding policy that we refrain from publicizing non-public information” with his October 28 letter to Congress, which Clinton has blamed for costing her the election. But Trump, at the time, was full of praise.
“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. You know that. It took a lot of guts,” Trump said at an October 31 rally. “I was not his fan, but I’ll tell you what: What he did, he brought back his reputation. He brought it back.”
Another fan of the decision was Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama and top Trump surrogate. “He had an absolute duty, in my opinion, 11 days or not, to come forward with the new information that he has and let the American people know that,” Sessions told Fox Business at the time. Yet in a letter attached to Rosenstein’s memo, Sessions, now the attorney general, told Trump that “for the reasons expressed by the Deputy Attorney General in the attached memo,” he recommended firing Comey in order to reaffirm the Justice Department’s “commitment to longstanding principles that ensure the integrity and fairness of federal investigations.”
Couldn’t Trump have had a change of heart since October? Theoretically, sure. But he was still criticizing Comey for being too light on Clinton just a week ago:
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
Taking Trump’s rationale for the firing at face value would require believing that the president had reversed a deeply held belief in the course of just a week. Trump has had some notable flip-flops, as on Syrian intervention, but few so plain or abrupt.
In a combative CNN interview Tuesday night, Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway herself suggested that the Clinton material was mere pretext. “This has nothing to do with the campaign from six months ago,” she told Anderson Cooper. “This has everything to do with the performance of the FBI director since the president has been in the White House.”
Trump himself contradicted the stated rationale, too. “He wasn't doing a good job. Very simply. He was not doing a good job,” the president told pool reporters Wednesday morning, his first non-Twitter comments on the firing.
If Trump did not fire Comey for being too mean to Hillary Clinton, then why did he fire him? It is impossible to know the president’s mind, and given the suddenness of the dismissal, it’s difficult to get a complete picture of the process. Even some White House staffers seem to have been surprised, and Comey, who was at an FBI office in Los Angeles, reportedly believed the news to be a prank when he first heard.
The answer to which many observers, including members of Congress from both parties, immediately gravitated was that Trump is attempting to meddle in the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the election. Democrats were direct, calling it a “constitutional crisis.” Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said, “President Trump has catastrophically compromised the FBI’s ongoing investigation of his own White House’s ties to Russia.” (That earned Blumenthal a morning broadside from Trump, who attacked him for exaggerating his Vietnam War record.)
But Republicans also voiced that worry. John McCain, a frequent Republican Trump critic, said in a statement, “I have long called for a special congressional committee to investigate Russia's interference in the 2016 election. The president's decision to remove the FBI Director only confirms the need and the urgency of such a committee.” Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee was somewhat more oblique, saying, “It is essential that ongoing investigations are fulsome and free of political interference until their completion.” North Carolina’s Richard Burr, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee examining Russian interference in the election, added, “I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination. I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee.”
Meanwhile, Trump was plainly enraged by the Russia investigation. He has tweeted angrily about it on multiple occasions, and called it a “charade.” While stories about Russia had emerged in a consistent drip since well before the election, Comey’s March 20 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee was a turning point, as the director told members not only that the FBI was looking at Russian interference, but also whether the Trump campaign colluded in it. On the same occasion, Comey said there was no evidence that President Obama had tapped candidate Trump’s phones, as Trump has alleged without evidence.
Trump made a curious reference to the Russia probe 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, explicitly drawing a line between the investigation and Comey’s firing.
Some news reports have already directly connected the Russia investigation with Comey’s firing. “Trump had grown angry with the Russia investigation—particularly Comey admitting in front of the Senate that the FBI was investigating his campaign—and that the FBI director wouldn't support his claims that President Barack Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower,” Politico’s Josh Dawsey wrote. Michael Schmidt of The New York Times reported that Sessions “had been charged with coming up with reasons to fire” Comey, even though Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe after admitting he failed to disclose a meeting with the Russian ambassador to Congress.
The Times further reported on Wednesday that days before he was fired, Comey had requested “a significant increase in money and personnel for the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election.” Comey made the request of Rosenstein, and also told members of Congress, the paper said.
Dawsey and CNN’s Gloria Borger both also reported that Roger Stone, an old Trump friend who is under investigation by the FBI for ties to Russia, had urged the president to fire Comey. Trump denied that in a tweet Wednesday morning.
During an appearance Tuesday night on Fox News, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders made the demand to end the investigations into Russia explicit.
“It's been going on for nearly a year,” she said. “Frankly, it's kind of getting absurd. There's nothing there. We've heard it time and time again. We heard it in the testimonies earlier this week. We've heard it for the last 11 months. There is no ‘there’ there. It's time to move on, and, frankly, it's time to focus on things the American people care about.”
Sanders’s claim falls short in a number of areas. First, the congressional investigations into Russia interference have barely begun. Second, there is widespread popular support for an investigation. Third, the pace of revelations about Russia appears to be quickening. Overshadowed by the Comey firing was CNN’s scoop that a federal prosecutors have issued subpoenas to associates of Michael Flynn, the fired Trump national security adviser, in connection with the FBI’s Russia probe.
There is little question that Trump is well within his authority as president to fire Comey. But there is a difference between whether he is able to do so and whether it was wise to do so. If the goal of the Comey firing, as circumstantial evidence suggests, was to stifle the Russia investigation, Trump may instead have drawn more attention to it.