On May 11, two days after he fired FBI Director James Comey, President Trump admitted that the White House’s initial story about the firing—that it was prompted by a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein—was bogus. Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that he had planned to fire Comey anyway and that while doing it, he had thought about the Russia investigation. Now we’re getting a clearer picture of what Trump meant.
It turns out that before consulting Rosenstein, Trump dictated a long letter in which he outlined his gripes about Comey. Last weekend, several news organizations reported details about the letter and why we never saw it. The articles don’t give conclusive answers, but they do clarify important questions.
1. What were Trump’s motives? Nobody has published the letter, but it’s said to be four pages long single-spaced, “emotional and critical” with an “angry, meandering tone.” Aides who have seen the letter say most of it isn’t about Russia. The part about Russia, they claim, is just what Trump was upset about in the dismissal letter he later released: that Comey wouldn’t say publicly, as he had said privately, that Trump wasn’t under investigation. (The Washington Post says the letter includes complaints about Comey’s investigation of Hillary Clinton. That would be interesting especially if Trump, consistent with his public statements, wrote that Comey was too soft on Clinton—and then tried to pin the firing on Rosenstein, whose memo argued the opposite.)
Trump’s surrogates say the story of the letter exonerates him. Trump couldn’t have fired Comey to stop the Russia investigation, they argue, because when aides saw the president’s letter, they warned him that firing the FBI director wouldn’t end the investigation and might prolong it, yet he went ahead with it anyway. But that’s only part of the story. If you read articles about the letter more thoroughly, you also learn that Trump went after Comey for disloyalty and impeding the administration’s agenda—in short, for behaving like an independent law enforcement officer rather than a flunky.
Politico, citing “aides and advisers,” reports that in the weeks leading up to the firing, “Trump was increasingly obsessed with Comey and concerned that he was disloyal to the administration.” The Wall Street Journal, quoting an administration official, says that Trump complained to associates about Comey’s “arrogance”—and that in his letter, the president wrote that Comey’s refusal to clear him was “hampering the country.” The Journal adds that according to its sources, Trump wanted to get rid of Comey “because he saw the lingering investigation as a weight on his presidency.” These quotes paint a picture of a president who saw any threat to himself as a threat to the country.
The Journal also notes that on May 5—the same day on which Trump, according to CBS News, “began talking to lawyer friends and senior staff about Comey” and getting rid of him—the president also “dressed down two of his top aides—White House counsel Don McGahn and Steve Bannon, then his chief strategist—over Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision, two months earlier, to recuse himself from the Russian investigation.” So Trump wasn’t just irked by Comey’s independence. He was also stewing that Trump loyalists had surrendered control of the investigation. From what we know now about the letter, the chronology behind it, and previous evidence, it’s clear that Trump wasn’t Richard Nixon. He didn’t have a detailed understanding of the case against him and how to undermine it. Trump operates more on a gut level: attacking unfavorable narratives, getting rid of troublemakers, and using leverage, such as patronage, to gain control of any institution that might threaten him. That’s why he fired Comey. It’s different from Nixon’s style of obstructing justice. But it’s still obstructing justice.
2. Who knew what when? The reports about Trump’s draft letter don’t just tell us about Trump. They tell us who in his circle knew and concealed the truth about his motives. The New York Times reports that the first people Trump “consulted” about firing Comey, apparently between May 4 and May 7, were his daughter Ivanka, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and aide Stephen Miller. The part about Ivanka is new and raises the question of whether she, like her husband, endorsed the idea of ousting the FBI director.
A second group of aides was reportedly told about the firing decision on May 8, after Trump had made the decision and had finished his letter. This group included McGahn, then–Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and Vice President Mike Pence. The Times says that at this meeting, Pence was given a copy of Trump’s initial letter. So when the vice president told reporters on May 10 that Trump had simply acted on Rosenstein’s May 9 memo, he wasn’t just misinformed. He was lying.
3. Who directed the cover-up? The person who comes out looking guiltiest isn’t Trump or Pence. It’s McGahn. All sources agree that on May 8, when Trump presented the letter to aides at the White House, McGahn tried to spike it. But apparently, McGahn also edited it. The Times reports that on May 8, McGahn gave Miller “a marked-up copy” of the letter “highlighting several sections that he believed needed to be removed.” The Associated Press adds that Trump’s main criticism of Comey—that “he would not say publicly that the president was not under investigation”—was “excised” from Trump’s original letter before being “partially restored in the final letter at Trump's behest.”
You can argue that McGahn was just doing his job. But none of his moves were designed to change Trump’s decision. By May 8, according to Politico, Trump had made up his mind, and aides were focusing on how the firing would be explained. To the extent that McGahn tried to edit out or prevent the exposure of Trump’s true motives—and to the extent those motives were central to the president’s obstruction of justice—McGahn was engaged in a cover-up.
In that respect, the most damning revelation about McGahn is that he set up Trump’s May 8 meeting with Sessions and Rosenstein to create a defensible rationale for firing Comey. The Post says McGahn asked Trump to “consult the two Justice officials, who were Comey’s supervisors, before moving forward.” The Times is blunter: McGahn “arranged for the president to meet in the Oval Office that day” with Sessions and Rosenstein because he knew that Rosenstein had recently complained about Comey to a White House lawyer. CBS News adds that “McGahn told the president that the Justice Department had already begun documenting problems with Comey that might justify his dismissal.” That’s a pretty clear offer of a pretext.
4. What was Rosenstein thinking? Rosenstein has acknowledged that he learned on May 8, before writing his memo, that Trump was going to fire Comey. This has led many people to wonder why Rosenstein—reputed to be an upstanding, apolitical prosecutor—wrote the memo at all. The articles about Trump’s initial letter tell us something about that. They say that Rosenstein was sent a copy of Trump’s letter by McGahn, and was given a copy by Trump, before writing his memo. This means that when Rosenstein wrote the memo at Trump’s request and submitted it the next day, he did so with explicit knowledge that Trump had a prior and completely different rationale for firing Comey. Rosenstein knew he was being used. And that raises the next question: Did Rosenstein then begin the process of arranging for a special counsel—whose appointment he announced on May 17—because he believed he had witnessed a crime?
What we’ve learned about Trump’s letter, to this point, solves none of these mysteries. But it does sharpen the questions that need answering. Trump wanted to fire Comey for reasons he didn’t tell us about. The people around Trump knew his thinking and concealed it, and they enlisted the Justice Department to create a cover story. The text of the letter, when it’s released, may tell us more about the nature and extent of this conspiracy. But what we know already is bad enough.