What did President Trump say in private as he schemed to get rid of then–FBI Director James Comey? How did the White House and the Justice Department put together their cover story for the firing? One man knows the answer to both questions: Attorney General Jeff Sessions. On Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee will get a chance to ask him.
The White House says Trump fired Comey because he was too tough on Hillary Clinton in his email investigation (despite Trump saying the opposite for months). To make this argument, Trump used Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein, who thinks Comey shouldn’t have criticized Clinton in public and shouldn’t have announced that he was reopening her case just before the election. The White House set up Rosenstein, falsely, as the man behind Comey’s ouster. The job of the intelligence committee, in its interrogation of Sessions, is to find out how this fraud was constructed and what Trump’s true motive for firing Comey was.
As president, Trump initially embraced and endorsed Comey—conceding, in effect, that Comey’s management of the Clinton investigation wasn’t a firing offense. But in February, Sessions got a warning that the Trump-Comey relationship was in trouble. On Feb. 14, the day after Michael Flynn was forced to resign as Trump’s national security adviser, Sessions and Comey attended an intelligence briefing in the Oval Office. Afterward, Trump asked everyone but Comey to leave. According to Comey’s Thursday testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions “lingered by my chair, but the president thanked him and said he wanted to speak only with me.” Comey had the impression that Sessions “knew he shouldn’t be leaving, which is why he was lingering.” But Sessions obeyed and left.
After the meeting, Comey didn’t tell Sessions that once the doors were closed, Trump had asked the FBI director to drop the investigation of Flynn. But Comey made clear to Sessions that the meeting had been improper and uncomfortable. “I took the opportunity to implore the attorney general to prevent any future direct communication between the president and me,” Comey testified. “I told the AG that what had just happened—him being asked to leave while the FBI director, who reports to the AG, remained behind—was inappropriate and should never happen.” In a statement after the hearing, the Justice Department confirmed that Comey had spoken to Sessions about “communications protocol with the White House.”
Something bad was going on between Trump and Comey. It didn’t seem to be about the bygone Clinton investigation. And Trump gave no signs that his grievances were similar to Rosenstein’s. In the two and a half months after the Feb. 14 meeting, Trump said just the opposite: that Comey “was very, very good to Hillary Clinton,” “was the best thing that ever happened” to her, and “saved” her. The only person Trump portrayed as an unwarranted target of Comey’s scrutiny was Flynn. A tweet from Trump’s @POTUS account on March 20 implied that Comey and Obama might be behind persistent leaks about Flynn’s secret talks with Russians, which had forced Flynn to resign.
If the problem between Trump and Comey wasn’t about Clinton, was it about Flynn? Was it about Russia? These scandals certainly weighed on Trump as he thought about firing Comey. In a May 11 interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump recalled: “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing, with Trump and Russia, is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ ”*
That quote doesn’t clarify exactly what role the Russia-related investigations played in Trump’s decision to purge Comey. But Sessions knows a lot more. In a May 11 interview on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, Robert Costa, a well-sourced Washington Post correspondent, reported:
For weeks, the president has only truly been talking candidly about Comey and his decision to probably get rid of him with two people: Attorney General Sessions and White House Counsel Don McGahn. … It was a private thing that Sessions and McGahn were going over with the president on how he could move forward if he really pulled the trigger.
What concerns did Trump raise during these deliberations? That’s the first question senators should ask Sessions. The next question is: How and why did Trump suddenly appropriate, for public consumption, Rosenstein’s critique as his own? Sessions was in the thick of that, too.
On May 8, Trump summoned Sessions and Rosenstein to the White House. By this time, Trump’s mind was made up. “Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey,” Trump later told Holt. The Post has reported, and Rosenstein has confirmed, that on that day Trump asked Rosenstein to write up his case against Comey. So Rosenstein did. His memo made the same case he had made all along: that Comey had exceeded the FBI director’s authority in pursuit of Clinton. Rosenstein told Congress that he sent his memo to Sessions “after noon on Tuesday, May 9.”
In the next six hours, according to letters signed by Sessions and Trump, an amazing transformation happened. First, Sessions read Rosenstein’s memo and concluded that Comey should be fired “for the reasons expressed by the Deputy Attorney General in the attached memorandum.” Then Trump, who had hitherto said exactly the opposite of what was in Rosenstein’s memo, issued a letter firing Comey based on “the attached letters from the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General.” The White House put out a statement claiming that Trump had “acted based on the clear recommendations” of Rosenstein and Sessions, even though Rosenstein later denied that his memo made a case to fire Comey for cause.
The day after Comey’s termination, Vice President Mike Pence went before reporters to shoot down the idea that Trump had solicited Rosenstein’s memo:
Q: Did the president ask the deputy attorney general to conduct a review of Director Comey?
Pence: The new deputy attorney general who was just sworn in two weeks ago and confirmed by the FBI came to work. He is a man of extraordinary independence and integrity and a reputation in both political parties of great character. Came to work, sat down, and made the recommendation, for the FBI to be able to do its job, that it would need new leadership. He brought that recommendation to the president.
This entire process has been dishonest. Trump’s public statements about Comey never matched the arguments he later invoked to fire the FBI director. And the White House’s account of what happened in Comey’s final days, as presented by Pence and other surrogates, is a demonstrable fraud. Sessions was in the middle of everything: the backstage deliberations, the production of the cover story, and the Feb. 14 encounter—a day after Flynn’s resignation—during which something between Trump and Comey went wrong. Congress must find out what the attorney general knows.
Correction, June 13, 2017: This article originally misstated the date of President Trump’s interview with Lester Holt. It was May 11, not June 11. (Return.)