It has been 36 hours since the White House announced that President Trump had fired James B. Comey as FBI director. And its rationale and explanations for that move continue to fall apart.
Below, we recap three claims that have been called into serious doubt and even directly contradicted by the White House itself.
1. That Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein initiated Comey's firing
The Post's Sari Horwitz scooped late Wednesday night that Rosenstein threatened to resign after the White House said he was the one who got the ball rolling on firing Comey. ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl has confirmed this.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer initially said Tuesday night that it “was all him” — referring to Rosenstein — before softening it slightly to say that Rosenstein initiated the process. The Post's Jenna Johnson wrote (emphasis mine):
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.”
By Wednesday morning, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Rosenstein memo left Trump “no choice” but to fire Comey.
The first problem with this is that Rosenstein, in his memo, didn't specifically advocate for Comey's firing at all. He merely said Comey had damaged confidence in law enforcement with his actions, and he left it there. Trump clearly had a choice, because nobody else made it.
And more recent statements from the White House make clear that Trump actually asked Rosenstein to write the memo and that he had been thinking about firing Comey for months — even as far back as Election Day.
“He asked them for their recommendation based on the conversation that they had on Monday,” Sanders said Wednesday. “He asked them to put that recommendation in writing. But they came to him on his own. And again, the president had lost confidence in Comey from the day he was elected.”
In an interview Thursday on ABC's “Good Morning America,” Sanders again scaled back Spicer's comments, saying Rosenstein's memo wasn't “at the direction, necessarily” of Trump.
Finally, the White House released a timeline late Wednesday saying: “After watching Director Comey’s testimony last Wednesday, the president was strongly inclined to remove him.”
That's a far cry from the tune Spicer was singing Tuesday night.
2. That it was because of the Clinton email investigation, not Russia
The Rosenstein memo made no mentions of Comey's testimony last week, nor the misstatements he made in it that were reported earlier this week. The only rationale mentioned was announcements Comey made last July and in November regarding the investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of the private email server while she was serving as secretary of state.
And that was a good story line for the White House. It suggested it all had nothing to do with the fact that Comey announced in March that the FBI was investigating alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
But this is also being called into serious question.
Conway muddied the waters as early as Tuesday night, telling CNN that the decision actually had “nothing to do with the campaign of six months ago. This is everything to do with the performance of the FBI director since the president has been in the White House.”
Okay. Except the White House itself now says Trump lost confidence in Comey before he was even inaugurated.
Then, The Post and others reported Wednesday that Comey had, mere days ago, requested more resources for his Russia investigation — something the Justice Department is disputing.
Then, CNN's Jake Tapper reported Wednesday that a source close to Comey said he was fired for two main reasons:
- “Comey never provided the President with any assurance of personal loyalty.”
- “The fact that the FBI's investigation into possible Trump team collusion with Russia in the 2016 election was accelerating.”
So which is it? Did Trump have to fire Comey because of the Rosenstein memo, which was all about stuff that happened during the 2016 campaign? Or was it only about stuff that happened afterward, which isn't mentioned in the memo?
3. That Trump lost confidence in Comey on Election Day
Let's go back to that Sanders quote from No. 1: “Again, the president had lost confidence in Comey from the day he was elected.”
This is utterly contradicted by multiple other quotes from the White House in recent weeks — and dating back to the end of the election.
On Oct. 28 — 11 days before Trump suddenly apparently lost confidence in Comey on Election Day and just after Comey had revealed there were more emails being examined in the Clinton investigation — Trump gave Comey a thorough, public vote of confidence.
“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,” Trump said. “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.”
Trump himself then said in mid-April -- less than a month ago -- that he still had confidence in Comey, while also previewing that this could change.
“It's not too late, but, you know, I have confidence in him,” Trump told Fox Business. “We'll see what happens. You know, it's going to be interesting.”
And Spicer said just last week that Trump still had confidence in Comey.
“The president has confidence in the director,” Spicer said May 3.
Either Trump lost confidence in Comey months ago, or he still had it last week. The White House can't have it both ways. And that's about as good a microcosm of this whole mess as there is.