Trump: DOJ Advice Followed His Decision to Ax Comey
President Trump decided to fire former FBI Director James Comey well before receiving recommendations from the Justice Department’s top officials this week, he said Thursday.
Trump’s description of his unilateral decision to jettison Comey, whom he described during an NBC News interview as “a showboat” and “a grandstander,” contradicted previous explanations this week by Vice President Mike Pence and the president’s communications team.
Pence and White House spokespeople told reporters Wednesday that Trump dismissed the nation’s top law enforcement officer after carefully reviewing written recommendations from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
To explain Trump’s Tuesday firing, the White House press office also released a written timeline, which the president then contradicted on Thursday.
“I was going to fire him regardless of the recommendation,” Trump told NBC News anchor Lester Holt. “I was going to fire Comey. There’s no good time to do it, by the way.”
Rosenstein’s written critique of the former director, and Sessions’ concurrence, both dated May 9, argued that Comey erred while managing the FBI’s investigation last year of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. They also faulted Comey for publicly discussing the Clinton investigation with the news media last summer and again in October, shortly before Election Day, without getting the concurrence of his then-boss, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
According the White House explanation offered by spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday, Trump evaluated the Justice Department report carefully before agreeing to accept a recommendation to fire Comey and install a new director.
When asked during the White House daily briefing if Trump had already decided to fire Comey before Tuesday, and if he tasked the Justice Department to “put together the rationale for that firing,” Sanders answered, “No.” On Thursday, the principal deputy press secretary corrected her response: “I went off of the information that I had when I answered your question,” she said.
On Thursday, the president made no mention, as his Justice Department team had, of Clinton or the email investigation. Last summer, Comey announced that the FBI determined the former secretary had been “extremely careless” but not criminally culpable while transmitting and receiving classified government information.
Instead, Trump assailed Comey’s leadership as well as his competency, rewinding the praise he heaped on him last year and reprised in January. “He’s not my man,” he said.
Comey led the bureau for less than four years of what was to be a 10-year term. The president and his surrogates have argued that Comey damaged morale at the FBI and defied department protocol and principles.
The president said he supports the FBI investigation into Russia’s actions and wants it “absolutely done properly.” Asked if he ever urged Comey to drop the investigation, Trump said, “No, never,” adding he wanted it “speeded up.”
“I want to get to the bottom. If Russia hacked, if Russia did anything having to do with our election, I want to know about it,” he said.
Trump has been reluctant to criticize Russia for its election interference. The intelligence community last fall issued a declassified report outlining the Kremlin’s motives and methods in seeking to tilt the election in Trump’s favor. The president has insisted that Russia had no impact on balloting and his victory over Clinton in the Electoral College.
Trump’s frustrations with Comey surfaced after the former director formally disclosed an ongoing investigation into Russia’s meddling with the 2016 election, and after Comey said the FBI was examining any potential Russian ties to Trump’s advisers and campaign associates.
Comey also publicly refuted the president’s charge, tweeted in March, that President Obama wiretapped him at Trump Tower last year. Trump continues to argue he and members of his campaign team were spied on by the Obama administration and U.S. intelligence while he was competing to win the White House.
The president said he seeks a top-notch successor to Comey, but a nomination did not appear imminent this week. A handful of names began circulating in the news media while GOP lawmakers and Trump supporters privately suggested potential picks.
“I don’t know,” White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told RealClearPolitics when asked if a Comey successor would be named soon, in part to end the FBI upheaval Trump said he worried about. “It’s a DOJ process,” Priebus said during a brief interview.
“The FBI has been in turmoil,” Trump told Holt. “Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.”
Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe countered that assertion nearly simultaneously Thursday. He told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Comey had "broad support within the FBI and still does to this day."
McCabe added, "The majority, the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep, positive connection to Director Comey."
McCabe told lawmakers he won’t give the president progress reports about the continuing investigation at the bureau.
Trump’s decision to fire the man who previously served as acting attorney general and deputy attorney general during the George W. Bush administration before being named by Obama to head the FBI sparked intense debate on Capitol Hill.
The shifting narratives at the White House about the president’s decision-making added to public confusion.
Many House and Senate Democrats have urged the Justice Department to name a special counsel, while others say a congressional select committee should be named to probe Russian election meddling. Attorney General Sessions recused himself from the FBI probe, but also advised Trump to fire Comey, adding to questions voiced about the administration’s aims. House and Senate Republican leaders have so far rejected calls to seek a special counsel.
Trump also stirred new debate when he told NBC that he asked Comey directly if he was a target of the FBI’s investigation. He said Comey assured him three times – once during a dinner and twice in phone calls – that he was not.
“I actually asked him, yes,” Trump told Holt. “I said, `If it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation?’ He said, `You are not under investigation.’”
Sanders said the president did not violate any laws, rules or protocols between the West Wing and the Justice Department governing inquiries about ongoing investigations, even investigations tied to a president. She said legal experts concurred, but she did not cite any independent authorities to bolster her defense of the president.
“I’m not under investigation,” Trump said more than once in the interview.
The president again denied having business interests in Russia and said he gave Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, a letter from his personal attorney stating that position.
Update: The White House released the letter, drawn from Trump's undisclosed tax returns, on Friday morning.