That latter issue took the form of a tweet that made a sweeping and demonstrably untrue claim:
Obviously it does matter whether Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director because of the Russia investigation. That, it seems, is a focus of Mueller’s investigation: whether the firing was an attempt to derail the investigation. A president actively pulling the levers of power to curtail an investigation of him and his presidential campaign is an important issue.
The central claim of the tweet, though, is Trump’s assertion that Comey wasn’t fired for that reason, an assertion that he claims the “Mainstream Media” accepts but tries to obscure.
So let’s walk through the available evidence and reporting suggesting that Russia was at least a significant part of Trump’s decision, if not the primary motivation.
The most obvious evidence opposing Trump’s point is what Trump himself said on national television two days after Comey was fired. In that infamous interview with NBC News’s Lester Holt, Trump explained his decision as follows:
“[Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein] made a recommendation, 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 do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”
Holt had not raised the subject of Russia. He had simply asked about the timeline of the firing. Trump raised Russia as a prompt for the firing of his own volition.
Again, that’s only the most obvious evidence. There is also:
Trump’s comments in the Oval Office to senior Russian officials. The day after Comey was fired, Trump hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then-Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office. During that meeting, Trump reportedly told Lavrov and Kislyak that he had fired Comey, “a real nut job.”
“I faced great pressure because of Russia,” Trump reportedly said. “That’s taken off.”
Trump repeatedly asked Comey to help clear him from suspicion. The memos Comey wrote after his meetings with Trump are littered with references to Trump’s attempts to get him to change what he was doing and to publicly clear the president of any suspicion.
“He then said he was trying to run the country and the cloud of this Russia business was making that difficult,” a memo about a call on March 30, 2017, reads. Comey later added, “He asked what he could do to lift the cloud.”
Comey’s memo dated April 11 has a follow-up.
“He said he was following up to see if I did what he had asked last time — getting out that he personally is not under investigation,” it says.
Then, of course, there is that comment from the Jan. 28 memo: “He replied that he needed loyalty and expected loyalty.”
There’s evidence that Trump wanted to make Russia a more explicit part of the firing. The weekend before Trump fired Comey, he was at his private club in Bedminster, N.J. While there, he reportedly asked his adviser Stephen Miller to draft a letter that he would use to fire Comey. That draft letter, which The Post reported is now in Mueller’s possession, apparently included language chastising Comey for not publicly exonerating the president.
(Two months before he was fired, Comey publicly acknowledged the existence of the investigation in testimony before Congress. In that testimony, he noted that the investigation, then about seven months old, was still in its early stages, particularly for a counterintelligence investigation. This may have contributed to his unwillingness to exonerate Trump at that point.)
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Andrew McCabe, then FBI acting director, had raised concerns about the process by which Rosenstein’s letter about Comey was drafted. Rosenstein told Justice Department officials, McCabe claimed, that “the president had originally asked him [Rosenstein] to reference Russia in his memo” presenting a case for Comey to be fired.
McCabe’s memo is now in Mueller’s hands.
Trump put pressure on other officials to try to get Comey to back off. It got buried a bit in the blizzard of news over the past 16 months, but The Post reported last June that Comey was not the only official who had faced pressure on the Russia investigation. In late March 2017, Trump reportedly asked his new director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo to try to pressure Comey to drop his focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn. (Another of Comey’s memos indicates that Trump made a similar request to Comey directly.)
Trump later called Coats and Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, asking them to release public statements of exoneration, which they declined to do.
At the beginning of this article, we noted that the Twitter complaints Trump lodged on Thursday morning included one about Sessions.
Consider that tweet. Trump is echoing attorney Joe diGenova’s argument that Sessions should not have recused himself from the Russia investigation in early 2017 and that the recusal was a betrayal. DiGenova was responding to the same thing that Trump was, a Times article detailing Trump’s efforts to get Sessions to resume control of the investigation after he had recused himself.
Sessions was an early, loyal supporter of Trump’s candidacy and was given his current position thanks in no small part to that loyalty. The implication is that Trump would much rather have someone loyal to him in a position of authority over the Russia investigation than someone more independent. He is publicly arguing that control of the Russia investigation is central to his thinking and, on Wednesday, even tweeted that he wished he had chosen someone else as attorney general because Sessions recused himself from control of that investigation. Trump wants Sessions out of his job because Sessions is not doing what Trump wants on the Russia investigation.
The idea that Trump fired Comey because Comey was too independent in his control of that investigation is not only not hard to believe, it’s the natural conclusion one can draw — even if Trump had never spoken with Lester Holt.