It is now obvious that President Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director to get him off the Russia investigation, right?
The New York Times reported Friday that Trump told Russian diplomats during that now-infamous meeting in the Oval Office last week that canning Comey relieved “great pressure on him,” according to an official White House record of the session.
“I faced great pressure because of Russia,” Trump reportedly said, referring to the FBI's probe of possible collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin, which now reaches a senior White House adviser. “That's taken off.”
Surely the mystery of Trump's motive has been solved once and for all.
Not so fast, says White House press secretary Sean Spicer. According to him, anyone who interprets Trump's remark as an acknowledgment that he was nervous about what Comey might find does not understand the definition of “pressure” in this context.
“By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia,” Spicer told the Times.
There. See? Trump understands that Russia is strategically significant, particularly in Syria. Relations are strained, and the president wants to improve them. Comey — that “showboat,” as Trump called him — was pumping extra pressure into an already-tense situation.
That's all Trump meant. He certainly wasn't talking about feeling pressure because Comey was on to something that might be damaging.
Spicer's spin might not ring true, but you can't prove him wrong. This is reminder No. 4,862 that it is incredibly difficult for the press to pin down Trump on anything.
Two days after firing Comey, the president conceded in an interview with NBC News that the Russia investigation was on his mind when he made the decision.
“When I decided to just do it,” Trump explained, “I said to myself, I said, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.' "
In a “Saturday Night Live” parody of the interview last weekend, Michael Che, playing NBC anchor Lester Holt, reacted with surprise to what seemed like an incriminating admission.
“So, did I get him? Is this all over?” Che said. “Oh, no, I didn't? Nothing matters? Absolutely nothing matters anymore?”
That's a pretty good synopsis of the situation. Trump said he was thinking about the Russia probe when he terminated the FBI director. He also said he felt pressure because of the investigation and felt relieved after removing Comey.
But he did not say these exact words: I fired Jim Comey to stop him from snooping around in my campaign.
Thus we have careful phrasing like this in the Times's scoop about the president's exchange with Russian officials in the Oval:
The conversation, during a May 10 meeting — the day after he fired Mr. Comey — reinforces the notion that Mr. Trump dismissed him primarily because of the bureau's investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and Russian operatives. (Emphasis added)
Despite appearances, major news outlets such as the Times feel they must continue to describe Trump's firing of Comey to get him off the case as a notion that has been reinforced but not proven beyond all doubt.