The firing of James B. Comey as director of the FBI has left the credibility of President Trump’s White House in tatters. The White House now appears to be an institution where truth struggles to keep up with events, led by a president capable at any moment of undercutting those who serve him.
This past week wasn’t the first time that the president’s spokespeople have been asked to explain the inexplicable or defend the indefensible. But what it showed is that this is far more than a problem with the White House communications team, which initially bore the brunt of criticism for offering what turned out to be an inaccurate description of how the president came to dismiss Comey. Whether the communications team is or isn’t fully in the loop is not the pertinent issue.
Instead, the responsibility for what has been one of the most explosive weeks of the Trump presidency begins at the top, with the president, whose statements and tweets regularly shatter whatever plans have been laid for the day or week.
It includes Vice President Pence, who in an appearance on Capitol Hill quadrupled down on what turned out to be, at its most benign interpretation, an incomplete and therefore misleading description of how the decision was made. It includes White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who must try to bring discipline to White House operations in the face of a president with a practice of frustrating those efforts and who then blames others when things go bad.
For Pence, this is the second time in four months that he has gone out in public with a description of events that turned out not to be fully accurate. In January, he was flat-out wrong when he vouched for Michael Flynn about whether the then-national security adviser had discussed sanctions against Russia in a telephone call with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. In that case, Pence repeated what Flynn had told him when Flynn was not telling him the truth. Chalk that up to misplaced confidence in an untrustworthy colleague who is now in legal jeopardy.
On Wednesday, Pence did something different. He went to Capitol Hill and in a brief scrum with reporters described the decision-making process that led to Comey’s dismissal as one that originated at the Justice Department and moved up to the chain of command to the president for action. This wasn’t a statement made in passing. Four different times he pointed to the Justice Department as the catalyst and cited Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein’s memo critiquing Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state as being critically influential.
As Pence explained it, Rosenstein recently “came in [to the Justice Department], sat down and made the recommendation for the FBI to be able to do its job that it would need new leadership. He brought that recommendation to the president. The attorney general [Jeff Sessions] concurred with that recommendation.” Pence said the president’s role was to act on that recommendation, saying Trump provided “strong and decisive leadership” in following the Justice Department’s advice.
Everyone now knows there was much more to the sequence of events, based on reporting by news organizations. The Post, citing many sources, reported that the president had told his senior staff Monday morning he wanted to move against Comey — hours before his meeting with Rosenstein and Sessions. On Thursday, the president told NBC’s Lester Holt he had made up his mind to fire Comey before he heard from the Justice Department and that, no matter what Sessions and Rosenstein recommended, he was going to do so.
Pence said the decision had everything to do with restoring confidence in the FBI and that it had nothing to do with the FBI’s ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether there was collusion between associates of Trump’s campaign and the Russians. But the president told Holt that, when he was deciding to fire Comey, “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.’ ”
Pence cannot know what is in the president’s mind at any given time, but he did know that the president had included in the brief letter to Comey a reference to the investigation and the claim that he had been told by the FBI director that he was not under investigation. Russia was certainly in the background, even if the president did not explicitly say that to Pence.
A spokesman for the vice president declined to speak for the record on the matter. But he said that Pence “stands by what he said. … He made it clear it was the president’s decision. He made it clear a lot of it had to do with confidence. … His main point was commending the president’s decisive action.”
Pence has prided himself on being a truth-teller, no easy job given that he has been asked often to stand up for a president who has often made factually inaccurate statements. He did himself little good in this episode. White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders struggled during briefings to provide an accurate accounting of events. But Pence was supposedly in the middle of the discussions that led to Comey’s firing.
Priebus, the former Republican National Committee chairman, almost from the beginning has been a target of criticism of the administration, thanks in part to the initial organizational decisions by the president-elect.
Trump established a White House with few clear lines of authority, competing power centers and, as it turned out, fighting factions. No one knows what truly goes on behind the scenes, what efforts senior officials are making to constrain the president, the times they are able to head off problems. What is known to the world at large is what is said and seen in public. By that measure, this has been an extremely messy week.
After the administration’s rocky start, Priebus may have believed he was gaining greater control of the White House operations and staff, at least in limited ways. What he hasn’t solved is the indiscipline of the president. With days of controversy and conflicting statements over the Comey firing, it seems evident there may be no way to bring real order to the White House of President Trump.
The letter from the president to Comey laid the foundation for the story that Comey’s firing was triggered by the recommendations of Rosenstein and Sessions. “I have received the attached letters from the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General of the United States recommending your dismissal as the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” Trump wrote. “I have accepted their recommendation and you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.”
Within 48 hours, the president undermined that assertion during his interview with Holt, the effect of which was to compromise all the senior officials in the chain of decision-making. However, it’s also possible there is a somewhat different explanation than the one he gave to Holt, one the president’s advisers cannot say themselves without undermining their boss.
Perhaps Trump has played down the influence of his Justice Department officials as a way of elevating himself, when, in actuality, it took the reassurances from Rosenstein and Sessions to prompt him to move immediately. Maybe he would have fired Comey on Tuesday no matter what. Or maybe not. In either case, the notion that Comey was fired because he mishandled the investigation of Clinton’s emails, as the original rationale suggested, doesn’t hold up.
Only those around the president know the full story of the firing and, more broadly, of the president’s style and operating behavior and what it is like day-to-day behind the scenes. But much more than problems within the communications shop are behind the credibility crisis that plagued Trump’s White House this past week.