President Trump was up early on Wednesday morning and, as is customary even when he’s not staying at Mar-a-Lago, seems to have turned on Fox News. As is also customary, he then tweeted a string of thoughts that tracked with what was airing on “Fox and Friends.” At one point, a guest argued that former FBI director James B. Comey had deserved to be fired last May given his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
A short time later, Trump tweeted.
It’s important for Trump to highlight that Comey wasn’t fired because of the Russia investigation because there are rumblings that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — appointed in the wake of that firing — is considering whether Trump was actively seeking to derail the Russia investigation by letting Comey go. It’s a bit like an accused bank robber loudly insisting that he really enjoyed visiting his aunt at precisely 2 p.m. last Thursday.
There’s just one problem with Trump’s tweet: A prominent Washington insider has already provided solid evidence that the Russia investigation was exactly why Comey was fired.
That insider was a guy named Donald J. Trump.
Ostensibly, the motivation for firing Comey was a report from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein that was critical of the FBI director’s handling of the Clinton investigation. While his report didn’t specifically advocate for the firing of Comey, the letter did criticize Comey’s actions. That document was paired with a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommending to Trump that Comey be fired. Trump fired Comey.
In short order, the New York Times reported that Rosenstein’s report was a result of Trump’s decision to fire Comey, not a predicate for it. He “knew Mr. Comey was to be ousted before he ever sat down to write his memo,” the paper reported. The Times’s Michael Schmidt, talking to administration officials the day of the firing, was told a case against Comey had been in development for a week, and “Sessions had been charged with coming up with reasons to fire him.”
In fact, while Trump was at his property in Bedminster, N.J., the weekend before firing Comey, he reportedly worked with Stephen Miller to draft a letter of his own, laying out the rationale for firing Comey in starker terms.
An administration official paraphrased to the Wall Street Journal what that draft said: “You’ve told me three times I’m not under investigation but you won’t tell the world, and it’s hampering the country.” The part about being told three times he wasn’t under investigation made it to the final version. The part about how the cloud of suspicion from that investigation was “hampering the country” did not.
But Trump got that message out anyway. Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt shortly after Comey was fired that the Russia investigation was central to his decision.
Rosenstein “made a recommendation,” Trump said, “but regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact, 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.”
That’s pretty clear-cut. And, it turns out, it wasn’t the first time he’d made that point to an interlocutor.
The day after he fired Comey (and the day before he spoke with Holt), Trump welcomed two senior Russian officials to a meeting in the Oval Office. A document that was read to reporters from the New York Times summarized the conversation.
“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump said, according to the document. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
No mention to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about any concerns over the handling of the Clinton investigation.
Then there’s the smell test. Which seems more likely to have been considered a fileable offense by Trump: That Comey’s actions in 2016 broke FBI protocol with the net effect of making Clinton’s path to the presidency more difficult — and Trump’s easier — or that Comey was leading an investigation that might result in people close to Trump being charged with crimes?
Trump’s frustration with the Russia investigation was and is tangible. The first time he tweeted “no collusion” was three days after firing Comey. The most recent time was in the tweet above.