This post has been updated with Monday's news, which only added to Trump's problems.
President Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey on May 9. And then he basically spent the next two days doing whatever he could to make it look like he had just committed obstruction of justice.
First came that infamous NBC News interview on May 11. After two days of the White House claiming the Justice Department had initiated Comey's firing and that it was because of the Hillary Clinton investigation, Trump said to hell with it; he blurted out that he was determined to fire Comey all along and that the Russia investigation was on his mind when he decided to do it.
On Friday, the New York Times reported that, in a meeting with top Russian officials on the day in-between — you know, the same meeting in which he gave highly classified information to those same Russians — Trump expressed relief at having taken Comey off his tail.
“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump said, according to a document summarizing the meeting that a U.S. official read to the Times. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
And now Monday, The Post is reporting that in March the president asked the nation's top intelligence officials to tell the public there was no evidence of collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential election. (His request to the Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, and the head of the National Security Agency, Mike Rogers, apparently came after Comey told Congress that the FBI was investigating potential collusion between Trump and Russia. Coats and Rogers apparently refused.)
Firing Comey in the first place was a highly suspect move. That's because Comey, as FBI director, was leading the Russia investigation and had recently announced the probe was targeting alleged Russian ties to Trump's campaign. So the White House set about saying this was Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein's decision and issued a memo from him focused solely on the Clinton investigation. Vice President Pence even said repeatedly that Russia was “not what this is about.”
Trump was apparently never on the same page — at all.
If we're parsing Trump's statements carefully, he still hasn't technically said something akin to ‘I fired Comey because of the Russia investigation.’ He's said just about everything but that, mind you, but he hasn't quite said that.
In the NBC interview, he said that Russia was clearly on his mind when he considered Comey's future:
“And in fact when I decided to just do it, 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.’ ”
And in the meeting with the Russians, he said, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
A top intelligence official tells The Post that Trump's goal in asking his top two intelligence chiefs to publicly say there is no evidence of collusion was to "muddy the waters" about the scope of the FBI probe, a probe that has now reached all the way up to a senior official in the White House.
There's no firm line from A to B in there. A well-paid lawyer would argue that Trump was saying in the NBC interview that he was thinking about Russia, but that it wasn't necessarily the reason he acted. And maybe Trump did enjoy having Comey off the case, but perhaps that was merely a helpful byproduct of a more legitimate reason to fire him.
Still, some are arguing that the new statement amounts to obstruction of justice, including George W. Bush's ethics counsel, Richard Painter -- a frequent critic of Trump's ethics.
POTUS admits obstruction of justice to Russian ambassador. Comey firing was to obstruct the investigation.https://t.co/n3m0vuhi6l
— Richard W. Painter (@RWPUSA) May 19, 2017
Trump statement in new @nytimes story is close to a confession to obstruction of justice
— Jeffrey Toobin (@JeffreyToobin) May 19, 2017
And Trump's own statements aren't the only news to raise questions about a possible obstruction of justice; he's also pushed that cause forward by firing Comey in the first place. The firing has led to leaks indicating Trump asked Comey for a loyalty pledge and also that he requested that Comey drop the investigation into former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn.
The White House has denied these stories. But if they're true, Trump fired Comey knowing that those conversations existed and that Comey may have documentation of them. That may one day look like a very bad call.
All of these point in the same direction: to Trump first trying to influence Comey's investigations and then to getting Comey off his back by firing him. And all of these revelations flow from the same fateful decision to fire Comey in the first place. We may not have known about any of them if not for that.
It's not completely clear that a president could be charged with obstruction of justice, but as our own Matt Zapotosky has reported, some legal analysts are starting to point in that direction.
And Trump is practically giving them a road map.