CNN anchor Chris Cuomo had a simple question for presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway on Wednesday: “Who told Rosenstein to do the report?”
Cuomo was referring to Rod J. Rosenstein, the new deputy attorney general whose memo criticizing James B. Comey's leadership of the FBI had been described by the White House as a catalyst for President Trump's decision to fire Comey.
Conway reacted to Cuomo's inquiry as if it were the most insulting thing she had ever heard.
“Rosenstein is the deputy attorney general of the United States,” she shot back. “He oversees the FBI. You can ask him. I assume that he put together the report on his own. But I see what you're insinuating.”
A moment later, Conway added: “He's fully capable of writing a report, isn't he, Chris?”
We know now that Rosenstein did not act “on his own.” The Washington Post reported Wednesday night that Trump had made up his mind to remove Comey by the weekend and that on Monday he ordered Rosenstein to present the case against the FBI director, in writing. Trump wanted to make it look as though he was following the advice of his Justice Department when, in fact, he asked Rosenstein to validate a call he already had made.
Cuomo, whom Trump likened to “a chained lunatic” in an interview published by Time magazine on Thursday, was right to wonder whether Rosenstein had been “told” to write his report on Comey. Conway was wrong to suggest that the question was unfair.
There was another problem with Conway's response — a bigger one, from the White House perspective: Rosenstein really didn't appreciate being portrayed as the reason Trump pulled the trigger.
Conway was not alone in pushing the narrative. White House press secretary Sean Spicer went so far as to say Tuesday night that “it was all him,” referring to Rosenstein. The Post's Sari Horwitz reported that Rosenstein was so bothered by the mischaracterization of his role that he threatened to resign.
Trump might not care whether his aggressive media strategy irritates journalists, but he ought to care whether it hurts morale within his own administration. In trying to spin reporters into believing that the idea to terminate Comey originated with Rosenstein, Trump's team nearly drove the deputy attorney general to quit — a result that could have been a public-relations nightmare.
This is not an isolated episode. At Wednesday's White House media briefing, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that “most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director.”
The FBI's acting director, Andrew McCabe, contradicted Sanders's assertion at length during a congressional hearing Thursday.
“That is not accurate,” he said of the White House claim that Comey had lost the confidence of the rank and file. “He enjoyed broad support in the FBI and still does to this day. … The vast majority of FBI staff enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey.”
Trump worries about a “deep state” of longtime government workers who are not loyal to him. He isn't likely to win their loyalty by having his staff misrepresent them.