The New York Times is reporting that Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III is in possession of a draft of a letter laying out a rationale for Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, prepared at President Trump’s urging by aide Stephen Miller in the days leading up to Comey’s dismissal. White House counsel Donald F. McGahn III stopped the pair from finalizing and sending the letter, according to the report, because of its “problematic” contents.
“It is unclear how much of Mr. Trump’s rationale focuses on the Russia investigation,” the Times reports, “although Mr. Trump told aides at the time he was angry that Mr. Comey refused to publicly say that Mr. Trump himself was not under investigation.”
This revelation needs to be read along with Trump’s tweet from this morning:
Trump’s tweet shows that he is working hard to deflect attention from the special counsel’s investigation by reviving his claims that it is Hillary Clinton, not he, who broke the law, and that a “system” that would absolve her and investigate him is “rigged.”
But the Times piece reminds us that Mueller’s probe is proceeding in a very serious manner, regardless of Trump’s efforts to deflect from it. And indeed, his efforts to resuscitate attacks on Comey and Clinton look more desperate, and transparently stupid, than ever.
Let’s try to unpack what Trump was trying to say here. In his tweet, Trump was apparently referring to a letter, written two days ago by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley and committee member Lindsey Graham, to current FBI Director Christopher Wray.
The six-page letter demands further information about whether former FBI Director James Comey acted inappropriately when, in 2016, he began drafting a statement concluding that Hillary Clinton should not be criminally charged for using a private email server as Secretary of State, two months before the FBI closed the investigation. The letter, dated August 30, was posted on the Judiciary Committee’s website, and it was quickly picked up by the media yesterday. Grassley and Graham said in the letter that they suspected that Comey did this, based on information that emerged from an internal Justice Department look at the FBI’s handling of Clinton’s emails.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about this letter during yesterday’s press briefing with reporters. She insisted that this supposedly shocking revelation is proof that Trump had good reason to fire Comey — ten months later. “I think that would certainly give cause and reason that Jim Comey was not the right person to lead the FBI,” she told reporters, although she offered no evidence that this was the “cause and reason” in Trump’s mind when he fired the FBI director on May 9.
Sanders was trying to rewrite history, by hinting that Trump could not possibly have obstructed justice in the Russia investigation by firing Comey, because he had good reason to do so — Comey’s botching of the Clinton investigation. Trump’s tweet today reiterated this idea.
But come on. Trump himself admitted on national television that he fired Comey because of the Russia probe, saying flat out that it was because “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.” But in this White House, not even the president’s own words can be permitted to interfere with their ongoing effort to grasp at whatever they can to vindicate him in the Russia probe.
What’s more, all sentient Americans will remember the history here. The notion that Comey somehow let Clinton off the hook is absurd. It’s true that Comey announced in July 2016 that the investigation into her emails was over. But Comey’s press conference was harshly critical of Clinton, calling her “extremely careless,” something that may have contravened Department of Justice policy and which Trump and Republicans continually exploited throughout the campaign. And Comey revived the focus on supposed Clinton wrongdoing when he announced he was re-opening the investigation into Anthony Wiener’s laptop just before the election — something Republicans also exploited.
In Trump’s telling, though, Clinton was given some special kid-glove treatment, and he is a victim of the “deep state.”
The White House must believe the public to be dimwitted, because Sanders’ effort to prop up her boss falls to pieces under the most basic scrutiny. It’s obvious that Trump is trying to litigate, in the court of public opinion at least, a claim that he did not obstruct justice in firing Comey, a sure sign that Mueller’s investigation into his possible obstruction of justice has him very worried.
But this is also destructive in another way. Like Trump’s previous accusations that the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt” and a “hoax,” he’s again trying to undermine public confidence in an investigation which, after all, is supposed to establish what Russia did to sabotage our democracy.
This afternoon’s Times scoop strongly suggests Trump has good reason to worry about the focus on his possible obstruction of justice. The Wall Street Journal reported last night that Trump’s legal team has been trying, in meetings and memos, to convince Mueller that Trump committed no wrongdoing in firing Comey. One memo, the Journal reported, “laid out the case that Mr. Trump has the inherent authority under the constitution to hire and fire as he sees fit and therefore didn’t obstruct justice” in firing Comey. Another “outlined why Mr. Comey would make an unsuitable witness, calling him prone to exaggeration, unreliable in congressional testimony and the source of leaks to the news media.”
Trump’s latest efforts to deflect attention from the Mueller probe — with this latest silly attack on Comey — would be laughable if the constitutional and national security stakes weren’t so dire. Mueller’s team, by all accounts, will just keep doing its work. But going forward, Trump and his defenders are likely to kick up a firestorm of renewed “but her emails!” distractions from the Russia probe. In the right-wing media, these efforts will likely get a lot of backup. But with Trump’s approval ratings hovering in the low 30s, it’s likely only his most diehard supporters will fall for it.