President Trump decided Tuesday to fire FBI Director James B. Comey. Either he badly misjudged the backlash that this would cause, or he decided that it would be worth it. Neither of those are good options.
What's clear a little more than 12 hours later is that the White House now has a major perception problem in firing the man who is in charge of investigating alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. And what appears to have been a rash decision has only been made worse by a mishandling of the public relations campaign.
Below are four reasons this blew up in their faces and will continue to dog them for the foreseeable future.
1. The stated reason is impossible to square with Trump's past comments
Half of the rationale offered by the Justice Department is Comey's decision to announce more of Hillary Clinton's emails later in the 2016 campaign. Democrats have cried foul about this, but Trump himself said during the campaign that it was the right call. And in fact, he said it absolved Comey of whatever error he made in not recommending charges against Clinton in July 2016.
“I respect the fact that Director Comey was able to come back after what he did,” Trump said late in the campaign. “I respect that very much. Good job by the FBI.”
Trump added: “I really disagreed with him. I was not his fan, but I'll tell you what: What he did, he brought back his reputation. He brought it back. He's got to hang tough because there's a lot of, a lot of people want him to do the wrong thing. What he did was the right thing.”
Apparently Trump has pulled a total 180 on that.
And so has Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Here's what Sessions said in November, when he was still a senator: “FBI Director Comey did the right thing when he found new evidence. He had no choice.”
The stated reasons for Comey's dismissal didn't include what happened Monday, when it was first reported that he misstated key facts at a congressional hearing last week; the reasons given were his decisions to recommend no charges against Clinton — a decision that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said “usurped” the power of the attorney general — and the late Clinton announcement.
Trump gave him a thumbs up after all that. Now he's arguing it was a fireable offense.
2. Even Republicans quickly questioned it in no uncertain terms
Several key Senate Republicans said late Tuesday that the timing of Comey's firing gives them major concerns and/or has no plausible justification. Two were Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who have been plenty critical of Trump in the past.
I've spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey's firing. I just can't do it.
— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) May 10, 2017
And here's Sasse:
But perhaps the most damaging reaction from a Republican on Trump's decision is from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (N.C.). Burr is overseeing the Senate's investigation of Russia's hacking of the 2016 election, and he called both “the timing and the reasoning” of Comey's firing “troubling”:
Just in from Burr: “I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Jim Comey’s termination." pic.twitter.com/sNl98EVRWJ
— Ali Watkins (@AliWatkins) May 9, 2017
Republicans of significant stature aren't even pretending this is much ado about nothing. They could have issued statements with platitudes and waited for things to shake out Wednesday morning. Instead, they quickly took issue with Trump's decision.
It's clear this is a big deal and couldn't be glossed over. Republicans are usually reluctant to speak out against their president — they've done it before and it came back to bite them — but with the Devin Nunes fiasco and now this, they seem to be reaching their wits' ends.
3. There was no real messaging effort — or plan
Some reporting suggested the backlash against Comey's firing came as a complete surprise to the White House. And it sure didn't seem to have much of a game plan for dealing with the fallout.
Our Jenna Johnson has lots of juicy details on how much the White House scrambled to contain the situation. Here's a taste:
After Spicer spent several minutes hidden in the bushes behind these sets, Janet Montesi, an executive assistant in the press office, emerged and told reporters that Spicer would answer some questions, as long as he was not filmed doing so. Spicer then emerged.
“Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,” he ordered. “We'll take care of this. ... Can you just turn that light off?”
Spicer got his wish and was soon standing in near darkness between two tall hedges, with more than a dozen reporters closely gathered around him. For 10 minutes, he responded to a flurry of questions, vacillating between lighthearted asides and clear frustration with getting the same questions over and over again.
As I wrote Tuesday night, it seemed that the White House saw an opportunity to make its decision on Comey and took it. With Hillary Clinton last week assailing Comey for potentially costing her the election and Comey's misstatements in congressional testimony that came to light Monday night, it probably seemed as good a time as any.
But if the White House thought Democrats would be on board with this decision — or at least that they could justify this decision by pointing to Democratic criticism — they were badly mistaken. Democrats instead are arguing that Trump's decision to get rid of the man leading an investigation of him is “Nixonian,” and some Republicans are having a difficult time completely dismissing that criticism.
And if there was one detail that betrays the White House's lack of preparedness, it's this: It announced Tuesday night that Trump would meet Wednesday morning in the Oval Office with none other than Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
That's terrible optics. Just terrible.
4. The documentation raises all kinds of questions
As I noted in my annotation of the Justice Department's memo, the case against Comey seems to have been hastily cobbled together with a bunch of easily plucked media quotes and op-eds from former Justice Department officials.
This led some to suggest that the memo was put together last-minute to craft a quick rationale for firing Comey and seize upon the bad news he was facing. Indeed, the memo doesn't really include any new information.
The Rosenstein memo is dated...today. So there was no real recommendation from DOJ. Trump wanted to do it, and they created a paper trail.
— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) May 9, 2017
The memo also, curiously, doesn't actually include a recommendation from Rosenstein to fire Comey. It seems to come right up to the edge of it — saying trust must be restored in the FBI and that Comey had damaged that trust — but it doesn't actually make a recommendation. That decision, apparently, was Trump's alone. It leads to the question: Did Rosenstein not want his name attached to that decision?
Basically, there could have been a much more compelling case for firing Comey that was laid out by the Justice Department. The letters issued — including Trump's own blustery one — don't suggest careful planning or an ironclad case for termination.