This article has been updated.
There is a simple reason that reactions to President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey tend to assume that the cause of the termination was the bureau’s investigation of possible links between Trump’s campaign and Russian agents: Trump has offered repeated evidence that this is the primary reason he wanted Comey to be gone — and essentially no evidence that he was concerned about the administration’s public reason.
Ostensibly, Trump was acting in response to a letter sent by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, a former U.S. attorney from Maryland who was elevated to his current position at the end of April. That letter is a review of Comey’s handling of the investigation of the email server Hillary Clinton used while she was secretary of state, concluding that “the way the Director handled the conclusion of the email investigation was wrong.” Rosenstein cites a number of former FBI officials who had offered a public critique of Comey’s news conference on the subject in July and his subsequent representations to Congress.
Although the letter doesn’t explicitly recommend that Comey be fired, a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions that was sent to Trump does. This, the administration argues, was the precipitating information that led to Comey’s ouster.
At no point before Tuesday did Trump ever express anything but enthusiasm for the events that prompted Rosenstein’s critiques of Comey. When Comey held that July news conference, Trump’s reaction was not that Comey overstepped his bounds, it was that “the system is rigged” for Clinton because no charges would be filed. Comey’s comment that Clinton had been “extremely careless” in handling her email became a staple of Trump’s campaign rhetoric in the weeks that followed.
When Comey subsequently announced shortly before the election that the FBI would examine emails found on a laptop belonging to Anthony Weiner, Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s husband, Trump praised Comey repeatedly.
“I have to give the FBI credit,” he said on Oct. 31, “that was so bad what happened originally, and it took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made, in light of the kind of opposition he had, where they’re trying to protect her from criminal prosecution, you know that. It took a lot of guts, I really disagreed with him, I was not his fan. But I’ll tell you what he did, he brought back his reputation — he brought it back.”
Comey’s defense of that announcement is specifically criticized in the letter from Rosenstein to Sessions.
Reporting in the wake of Comey’s dismissal suggests that the attorney general was tasked with finding a reason to terminate Comey. The New York Times’s Michael Schmidt wrote that administration officials told him that “Sessions had been charged with coming up with reasons to fire” Comey, and that staff from the White House and the Justice Department had been working on “building a case” for at least a week. The implication at the heart of that report meshes with the contradiction between Trump’s past statements about Comey and Rosenstein’s critiques: The Rosenstein letter probably was simply the evidence the White House was looking for.
Update: McClatchy’s Anita Kumar reports that Trump directed Rosenstein to write a memo on Comey on Monday following a discussion about his tenure. Sen. Dianne Feinstein told ABC’s Ben Siegel that Trump told her he’d “asked Rosenstein and Sessions to look into it.”
Which leaves us with the question of why the White House was looking for a reason. Two answers immediately rise to our attention: the investigation of links to Russia, and Comey’s high profile within the government.
The latter possibility is reinforced by a Wall Street Journal report.
“In the months before his decision to dismiss Mr. Comey as head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mr. Trump grew unhappy that the media spotlight kept shining on the director,” the paper reports. “He viewed Mr. Comey as eager to step in front of TV cameras and questioned whether his expanding media profile was warping his view of the Russia investigation, the officials said.”
This meshes with Trump’s reaction when he met with Comey at the White House shortly after his inauguration. “He’s become more famous than me!” Trump said, to the amusement of the other law enforcement officials in the room.
Update: The New York Times points to Comey’s comment during testimony before Congress last week, including his saying that he felt “slightly nauseous” at having potentially altered the course of the 2016 election.
The more resonant possibility for seeking Comey’s ouster is, of course, the Russia investigation. Trump’s feelings about the inquiry are immediately obvious; the president who not only wears his feelings on his sleeve but then tweets out a picture of them has repeatedly complained about the ongoing questions about whether and how his campaign staff members may have colluded with Russian efforts to intervene on his behalf.
Since the election, Trump has tweeted complaints about the Russia investigation more than 40 times. Most recently, he complained about the inquiry on Monday, after a Senate committee heard testimony on the subject from former acting attorney general Sally Yates. In that tweet, he called for an end to the investigation.
Politico reports that Trump’s behind-the-scenes attitude about the investigation was not any more tempered.
“He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia,” Politico’s Josh Dawsey reported. “He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.”
The various investigations of Russia’s election tampering have flummoxed Trump for months, consistently unearthing embarrassing details. If there were no links between the campaign and Russia, as Trump and his team assert, the president’s frustrations would be understandable — but one traditional response to such investigations is to cooperate fully in the hopes that the queries will wrap up quickly.
Trump has chosen another tack. Whether that’s a function of his natural temperament or of concern for what will be unearthed is not clear. What is clear is that Trump’s interest in getting rid of Comey has meant that he probably has made his Russia problems worse.
There’s one more overarching contradiction that suggests that Trump’s publicly offered motivation for dumping Comey may not have been sincere.
On Monday, Yates testified that she warned the White House on Jan. 26 that then-national security adviser Michael T. Flynn might be compromised by Russia. The White House didn’t react to that information until mid-February, after The Washington Post reported that Flynn had been recorded having an improper discussion with the Russian ambassador to the United States. The administration has repeatedly insisted that the intervening time period was spent investigating Flynn’s behavior and that his forced resignation was unrelated to the news reports.
The Rosenstein letter was dated May 9 — Tuesday. Comey was gone within hours. Flynn was a Trump loyalist. Comey was not.
By the way, the person who actually recommended Comey’s termination, Sessions, came under fire for meeting with the Russian ambassador and not revealing it when the Senate questioned him. As a result, Sessions announced that he would be recusing himself from any investigation of Russian activity.
That apparently didn’t include pushing to fire the person running it.
Update: The Post’s Ashley Parker reports that last week, Comey “requested more money and resources from the Justice Department for his bureau’s investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.”