Why did President Trump fire FBI Director James Comey? There is plenty of informed speculation, but we don’t know yet, and the answer will require further investigation. We do know two things: The explanations given by the White House are false, and the evidence points toward friction over the FBI’s Russia investigation.
The White House is pinning the decision to fire Comey on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. In interviews Tuesday night, White House spokespersons Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Kellyanne Conway claimed that Trump had “no choice” but to act on Rosenstein’s memo, issued earlier in the day, which criticized Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. They emphasized that Rosenstein had been confirmed on a 94-6 Senate vote, that Democrats had praised him in the past, and that he had also served under President Obama. In Conway’s words, a respected “nonpartisan figure” made the decision, and Trump simply administered it. Spicer said of Rosenstein: “It was all him.”
But that story is falling apart. Here’s why you should be suspicious of what the White House is saying.
1. The White House’s story has changed. On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, Conway and Sanders said Rosenstein’s memo was so powerful and well-substantiated that it moved Trump to action. But in her press briefing on Wednesday afternoon, Sanders revised her account, acknowledging that Trump had requested the memo after receiving an oral briefing from Justice Department officials on Monday. To downplay the appearance of orchestration, Sanders implied that Comey only came up serendipitously. She said Sessions and Rosenstein had gone to the White House for “other business, not specifically to meet with the president on that. The topic came up, and they asked to speak with the president, and that’s how it moved forward.”
2. The story doesn’t fit the time frame the White House is presenting. Rosenstein’s memo says Comey is unfit because Comey persecuted Hillary Clinton by publicly disparaging her and publicly reopening her email investigation, in both cases exceeding the FBI director’s legal role. On its face, the argument is plausible. But the White House’s use of this argument to rationalize Comey’s firing is fraudulent. The memo focuses on Comey’s behavior from July 2016, when he announced the results of the Clinton probe, to October and November 2016, when he reopened it. That doesn’t square with Conway’s statement to CNN Tuesday night that the firing “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.” Nor does it square with Sanders’ statement, from the White House podium on Wednesday, that Trump lost confidence in Comey “over the last several months.”
3. The story doesn’t fit the timeline of the past week. The New York Times reports that “according to people close to the president, he had been openly talking about firing Mr. Comey for at least a week” before he did it. Another Times story, citing “administration aides,” says “senior officials at the White House and the Justice Department had been charged with building a case to justify Mr. Comey’s firing since at least last week,” and Attorney General Jeff Sessions “had been tasked with coming up with reasons to fire him.” A Politico report posted Tuesday night concurs: “People familiar with the events said Trump had talked about the firing for over a week, and the letters were written to give him rationale to fire Comey.”
These reports don’t just expose the Rosenstein memo as a front. They also present a timeline that defies White House accounts. Sanders, in a Fox News interview, attributed Comey’s firing in part to his May 3 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which Comey made some errors. (The Times account agrees that Comey’s testimony upset Trump, but for a different reason: because Comey testified that he was “slightly nauseous” at the thought that the FBI might have helped to elect Trump.) But if Trump’s push for the ouster began more than a week before Tuesday night, then it preceded Comey’s testimony. Conway and Sanders also cited, as a basis for the decision, the FBI’s formal correction of Comey’s errors. But the correction wasn’t reported until after 5:00 p.m. Tuesday, which, according to Spicer, is when Trump notified Comey and Congress of his decision. The asserted sequence—errors, correction, memo, decision—can’t be squeezed into the time frame. And if the Times is correct that Trump made his final decision “early Tuesday,” then the sequence is a lie.
4. The story doesn’t fit Trump’s prior statements. After Comey reopened the Clinton probe in October, Trump said the decision showed “guts,” restored Comey’s “reputation,” and earned Trump’s “respect.” In January, Trump asked Comey to stay on as FBI director. In a tweet posted on May 2, Trump said Comey gave Clinton “a free pass” and was “the best thing that ever happened” to her. Now the White House claims that a briefing or a memo reversed Trump’s opinion. And the spin presented by Sanders on Wednesday—that Trump had been thinking for a long time about firing Comey—doesn’t fit either account. Trump’s original complaints about Comey were about leniency toward Clinton. Rosenstein’s memo is about undue harshness toward Clinton.
5. The story doesn’t fit the speed of the firing. All of these things happened within hours on the same day: the FBI’s correction, Rosenstein’s memo, a follow-up memo from Attorney General Sessions to Trump, and Trump’s termination letter to Comey. Between these events, there was little time to consider the evidence or arguments just presented. Even if everything in Rosenstein’s memo had been presented to Trump on Monday—which would be odd, if, as Sanders says, Sessions and Rosenstein were at the White House for other business, and Comey came up as a side issue—that’s still just 24 hours from the initial briefing to the termination letter. Trump didn’t even wait until Comey, who was out of town on a recruiting trip, returned to Washington. Clearly the sequence was driven by haste, not deliberation.
The White House’s story, that the briefing and the memo immediately and fully reversed Trump’s judgment of Comey, isn’t credible. Sanders’ explanation on Tuesday night for the haste—“When you make a decision like that, frankly, Tucker, why sit on it?”—is absurd on its face. It also doesn’t square with the story Sanders told Wednesday, about Trump stewing for months over Comey’s fate. And on MSNBC Wednesday morning, she was unable to explain why Trump waited 18 days to fire then–National Security Adviser Michael Flynn—who had been caught lying about his contacts with Russia—but moved in just hours to fire Comey.
6. All the things Comey did during the period when Trump ostensibly turned against him were related to Russia. If Conway and Sanders are telling the truth about an extended time frame—that Trump soured on Comey during the period between his inauguration and May 3—then the next logical question is what caused this shift. Here are the chief events connecting Trump to Comey during that period:
Feb. 24: Comey rejects requests from the administration to publicly rebut reports about Trump associates’ contacts with Russians. Shortly afterward, in a tweet, Trump blasts the FBI for failing to find people in its ranks who are leaking information about Trump associates’ contacts with Russians. “FIND NOW,” the president demands.
March 20: Comey reveals that the FBI is “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” including “whether any crimes were committed.” He also testifies that he has checked with the FBI and found no evidence for Trump’s persistent claims that Obama wiretapped him.
March-April-May: According to CNN, associates of Flynn receive grand jury subpoenas, “the first sign of a significant escalation of activity in the FBI's broader investigation.” In a May 9 report, CNN says the subpoenas were issued “in recent weeks.” In her Wednesday briefing, Sanders claimed that the White House was unaware of the subpoenas.
7. Administration sources have connected the Russia-related events to Trump’s decision. At Wednesday’s briefing, Sanders acknowledged that Comey’s failure to stop the FBI from leaking was probably one reason why Trump lost confidence in him. But press accounts based on inside sources are more extensive. The Times reports that Trump, in the days leading up to the Comey decision, was privately “denouncing Mr. Comey’s conduct in both the Clinton and Russia investigations.” The Washington Post adds:
Several current and former officials said the relationship between the White House and the FBI had been strained for months, in part because administration officials were pressuring Comey to more aggressively pursue leak investigations over disclosures that embarrassed the White House and raised questions about ties with Russia. That pressure was described as conversational challenges to FBI leadership to pursue the source of leaks seen as damaging to the administration, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Although the FBI is investigating disclosures of classified information, the bureau has resisted calls to prioritize leak investigations over the Russia matter, or probe matters that did not involve leaks of classified or otherwise sensitive information, the officials said. “The administration has been putting pressure on the FBI to focus more on the leaks and weren’t satisfied with the results,’’ said a former senior U.S. official familiar with the matter. A current official said administration figures have been “very aggressive’’ in pressuring the FBI.
And Politico reports:
Trump weighed firing his FBI director for more than a week. … He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said. … 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.
8. Trump’s decision followed direct lobbying by Roger Stone. Stone is one of the Trump associates under investigation. According to Politico, “Several Stone allies and friends said Stone, who has been frequently mentioned in the investigation, encouraged the president to fire Comey in conversations in recent weeks.” The Times concurs that Stone “was among those who urged the president to fire Mr. Comey, people briefed on the discussions said.” Trump tweeted on Wednesday that he had “not spoken to Roger in a long time.” But the Times reports that “two longtime Trump associates with knowledge of the matter said the two had recently discussed their mutual dissatisfaction with Mr. Comey and his investigation.”
9. Rosenstein’s memo allegedly followed a request to him from Comey for more resources to investigate Russia. According to the Times, four congressional officials, including Sen. Richard Durbin, said Comey told them that in a meeting in recent days, he had asked Rosenstein for “a significant increase in resources for the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election.” Rosenstein’s memo, dated May 9, doesn’t mention this request.
10. Having fired Comey, the White House is substituting its own account of what his investigation has found. In a letter released to the press, Trump said Comey had told him “on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation.” Neither Comey nor the White House has provided evidence that Comey said this. Conway, when asked about it on Wednesday, replied: “I’m not going to reveal to you conversations between the president of the United States and the director of the FBI.”
On Tuesday night, Conway sowed doubt over whether the FBI has been investigating links between Trump associates and Russia. Her ambiguous comments led Anderson Cooper to ask her: “So you’re saying there is no investigation by the FBI that’s ongoing right now into the people around the president of the United States?” Conway replied: “Well, I don’t know that. But I’m saying that to the extent that any of that is true, the president himself is not the subject of investigation.” On Wednesday morning, she went further, asserting, “The investigation has gone nowhere.” Sanders, speaking to Fox News, said of the investigation: “There’s nothing there. … It’s time to move on.” And Vice President Pence, misrepresenting statements by former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, repeated: “There is no evidence of collusion between our campaign and any Russian officials.”
To recap: The White House is lying. We know this because its explanations radically conflict with each other and with Trump’s past statements, leaked accounts from inside the administration, and other evidence from the past four months. Those statements, leaks, and other evidence point to a different explanation for Comey’s firing: the Russia investigation. In Trump’s letter to Comey, and in interviews and statements about the firing, the White House is trying to erase the investigation and declare Trump and his associates innocent. Instead, they have added a new level to the scandal: obstruction of justice. And the termination of James Comey is Exhibit A.