On May 9, Donald Trump became the second United States president to fire the director of the FBI. Naturally, Americans wanted to know: Why?
The exact answer remained elusive over the course of three days following the announcement. Trump and his White House gave numerous, contradictory explanations for James B. Comey’s firing.
As a public service, we compiled a timeline of the shifting rhetoric by Trump and his staff. We will update this list as necessary.
Tuesday, May 9, 2017: Trump acted on the deputy attorney general’s recommendation
The original explanation from Trump and his White House was that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions initiated Comey’s firing. In a letter to Sessions, Rosenstein criticized Comey’s handling of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server use as secretary of state. He did not explicitly call for his dismissal.
Sessions forwarded the letter to Trump, recommending he remove Comey: “Based on my evaluation, and for the reasons expressed by the Deputy Attorney General in the attached memorandum, I have concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI.”
Trump then wrote a letter to Comey, saying he was acting on their recommendation. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer issued a statement with the same message.
White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway echoed it on CNN: “I would point them to the three letters that were received today, Anderson [Cooper]: The letter by President Donald Trump, the letter by Attorney General Sessions, and really, the underlying report by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who the FBI director reports to.”
At a news briefing later that night, Spicer made it clear that the decision was made by DOJ and Rosenstein. From our colleague Jenna Johnson’s dispatch:
As Spicer tells it, Rosenstein was confirmed about two weeks ago and independently took on this issue so the president was not aware of the probe until he received a memo from Rosenstein on Tuesday, along with a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommending that Comey be fired. The president then swiftly decided to follow the recommendation, notifying the FBI via email around 5 p.m. and in a letter delivered to the FBI by the president’s longtime bodyguard. At the same time, the president personally called congressional leaders to let them know his decision. Comey learned the news from media reports.
“It was all him,” Spicer said of Rosenstein, as a reporter repeated his answer back to him. “That’s correct — I mean, I can’t, I guess I shouldn’t say that, thank you for the help on that one. No one from the White House. That was a DOJ decision.”
Wednesday, May 10, 2017: Trump had considered firing Comey for months, but acted upon DOJ’s recommendations
The next day, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders revealed Trump actually asked for the recommendation of Rosenstein and Sessions. Trump had been losing confidence in Comey for months and had been considering firing him since Election Day, she said: “But he did have a conversation with the deputy attorney general on Monday where they had come to him to express their concerns. The president asked that they put those concerns and their recommendation in writing, which is the letter that you guys have received.”
CNN’s Jonathan Karl asked Sanders: “Isn’t it true that the president had already decided to fire James Comey and he asked the Justice Department to put together the rationale for that firing?”
Sanders answered: “No. … The final decision to move forward with it was yesterday. But I know that he’s been contemplating it for a while.”
Vice President Pence repeatedly told reporters that Trump decided to act on the recommendations by Rosenstein and Sessions, and that Rosenstein independently had decided to conduct an investigation of Comey’s handling of the Clinton probe:
Separately, Trump told reporters that he fired Comey “because he wasn’t doing a good job. Very simple. He wasn’t doing a good job.”
Later that day, the White House released an “official timeline” of Trump’s decision-making process:
- “The President, over the last several months, lost confidence in Director Comey.
- After watching Director Comey’s testimony last Wednesday [May 3, 2017], the President was strongly inclined to remove him.
- On Monday [May 8, 2017], the President met with the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General and they discussed reasons for removing the Director.
- The next day, Tuesday May 9, the Deputy Attorney General sent his written recommendation to the Attorney General and the Attorney General sent his written recommendation to the President.”
Then, that evening, The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz reported that Rosenstein “threatened to resign after the narrative emerging from the White House on Tuesday evening cast him as a prime mover of the decision to fire Comey and that the president acted only on his recommendation.”
Thursday, May 11, 2017: Trump planned to fire Comey regardless of the DOJ’s recommendations
The president then contradicted his staff’s earlier comments. In a preview video clip of his interview with NBC News, Trump said he planned to fire Comey all along, regardless of Department of Justice recommendations:
Lester Holt: “Monday, you met with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Did you ask for a recommendation?”
Trump: “What I did was, I was going to fire. My decision.”
Holt: “You’d made the decision before they came into the room?”
Trump: “I was going to fire Comey. There’s no time to do it.”
Holt: “In your letter, you said, ‘I accept their recommendation.’ ”
Trump: “Oh, I was going to fire, regardless of recommendation. He made a recommendation, he’s highly respected — very good guy, very smart guy. And the Democrats like him, Republicans like him. He made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that Rosenstein “pressed White House counsel Don McGahn to correct what he felt was an inaccurate White House depiction of the events surrounding FBI Director James Comey’s firing, according to a person familiar with the conversation. … The deputy attorney general objected to statements by White House aides citing Mr. Rosenstein’s critical assessment of Mr. Comey’s job performance to justify the firing.”
In a subsequent news briefing, Sanders clarified her comments from the previous day. Trump’s Monday meeting with Rosenstein and Sessions “reaffirmed” what Trump already was planning to do, she said.
Later on Thursday, NBC aired its full interview with Trump. In it, Trump offered yet another reason for firing Comey: The FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. (Sanders had hinted at this earlier in the day, saying the White House believed that by removing Comey, it took steps to make sure the FBI’s Russia investigation would “come to its conclusion with integrity.”)
Trump: “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. … So everybody was thinking, they should have won the election. This was an excuse for having lost an election.”
Thursday, May 18, 2017: Rosenstein says he knew Comey would be fired before he wrote his memo; Trump says he thought firing Comey would be a ‘bipartisan decision’ because Democrats had criticized him
In a closed-door briefing to the full Senate on May 18, Rosenstein said he knew Comey would be fired before he wrote his May 9 memo that the White House used as justification to fire Comey. Rosenstein told senators he was not pressured into writing the memo.
“He learned the president’s decision to fire him and then he wrote his memo with his rationale,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.).
Meanwhile, Trump said in a May 18 news conference that firing Comey was something even Democrats wanted. And he once again cited Rosenstein’s memo.
“Director Comey was very unpopular with most people. I actually thought when I made that decision — and I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. But when I made that decision, I actually thought that it would be a bipartisan decision. Because you look at all of the people on the Democratic side, not only the Republican side, that were saying such terrible things about Director Comey.”
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