Consistency has never been part of President Trump’s playbook, and no more so than in the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey. What once drew praise from Trump as a candidate has now become part of the president’s rationale for one of the most controversial dismissals of a government official since the Watergate scandal.
Nor is the president the only central player in the Comey drama to have seemingly reversed course in his evaluation of the director’s actions. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recommended that Trump fire Comey, also had praised Comey for actions that have now turned him into a private citizen.
Comey was nobody’s favorite at the time of his firing. Republicans condemned him in July when he held a news conference to say he would not recommend that Hillary Clinton be prosecuted for using a private email server as secretary of state, Trump among them. Some of them thought she should have been sent to prison.
Democrats condemned him at the same time for using that news conference to direct pointed criticism at how Clinton had handled emails that contained classified material. They thought the criticism was gratuitous, given the decision not to prosecute.
Democrats grew even more critical when, on Oct. 28, Comey announced the reopening of the investigation. They considered it a potentially decisive moment in the presidential campaign, and they still think it contributed, perhaps significantly, to Trump’s victory. Clinton said so just last week.
Trump, meanwhile, suddenly became a Comey fan in the campaign’s final days, his estimation of the FBI director suddenly growing significantly. Candidate Trump repeatedly praised Comey for his decision to make a public announcement about the investigation. He commended the director for having the “guts” to act as he had and said he had “brought back his reputation” with that single announcement. Shortly after being sworn in, Trump singled out Comey at a White House ceremony and showered him with more praise.
After Comey wrote his Oct. 28 letter to Congress announcing the reopening of the investigation, Sessions joined in the acclaim, at least twice publicly defending the director. In a late October interview on the Fox Business network, Sessions said Comey “had an absolute duty … to come forward with the new information.” Just before the election, he said on Fox News Channel that Comey “did the right thing … He had no choice.”
Now, suddenly, Comey’s behavior has been reinterpreted as grounds for dismissal. The argument that he had mishandled the Clinton investigation was made forcefully by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, the former U.S. attorney in Baltimore tapped for the No. 2 job at the Justice Department. It was Rosenstein, recently sworn in to his new position, who provided the justification for the dismissal. Sessions seconded the recommendation, which went to the president.
Sessions had previously announced that he would recuse himself from all matters involving the Russia investigation because he had not told the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings that he had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign. The explanation given was twofold: that the firing was not because of the Russia investigation and that the Russia probe is only a part of the FBI’s work.
It’s correct that neither Rosenstein nor Sessions referred to the Russia investigation in their written communications to the White House. But the president did. In his dismissal letter to Comey, Trump said he appreciated having been told three times by the director that he is not under investigation. The circumstances of those assurances had not previously been revealed, and there was no immediate explanation from the White House about when they took place.
White House officials have struggled to explain the sequence that led to the firing. Was it a decision generated by Rosenstein’s critique, which provided the president a rationale to get rid of Comey? Or, as Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at Wednesday’s briefing, Comey’s dismissal was something the president has been thinking about for months.
Comey had put Trump in a defensive position by announcing publicly the probe into Russian interference and possible collusion between Trump associates and the Russians. He was obviously furious about leaks that have damaged his administration. Trump told reporters Wednesday that he fired Comey because the director “wasn’t doing a good job.” Why then were reporters told recently that the president had full confidence in Comey?
Accusations of hypocrisy are flying in both directions. Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, “The Democrats have said some of the worst things about James Comey, including the fact that he should be fired, but now they play so sad!” Attacking several Democrats personally, he said Comey had “lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington.” He predicted that people “will be thanking me” once the dust settles.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), speaking on the Senate floor, pointed to the Democrats and their earlier calls for Comey to resign as evidence that they are the ones playing politics with the firing. He said that Comey was fired for “many of the very reasons they consistently complained about” and that the firing came at the recommendation of a deputy attorney general “whom they repeatedly and effusively praised.” He also brushed aside calls for an independent counsel to take over the investigation.
Vice President Pence, appearing on Capitol Hill, dismissed criticism of the firing. Echoing the president, he said that Comey had “lost the confidence of the American people” and that the FBI needs “a fresh start.” He then praised Trump, saying, “This was the right decision at the right time.”
But the timing of the firing remains deeply suspect and the move highly controversial. It has been noted repeatedly that the dismissal came unexpectedly and that the decision apparently was extremely closely held inside the administration. The announcement Tuesday afternoon caught many White House officials by surprise, and they scrambled to explain it. The move also came in the absence of a replacement waiting in the wings, a sign of the haste with which the president and his team acted.
Adding to the questions about the timing was a report Wednesday that a week before his firing, Comey had requested a hefty increase in resources for the Russia investigation. The news was first reported by the New York Times.
However, Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores denied the reports. She said the request for more resources “did not happen” and that the reports are “totally false.”
All of this raises questions about the president’s true motive in dismissing Comey and the judgments of those around him about the potential reaction to such a controversial decision. Did he really suddenly reevaluate actions Comey took months ago? Was Comey’s unwillingness to admit error for past decisions during testimony last week the final justification for his dismissal? Or is the president deeply worried about what the Russia investigation might turn up?
It’s important to restate that there is no known concrete evidence of collusion between associates of the Trump presidential campaign and Russian officials. But it’s equally important to remember that the Russia investigation is ongoing, on multiple fronts, with renewed calls for an independent inquiry.
The president’s brazen and abrupt firing of the official tasked with overseeing the government’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the election and the possible connections to the Trump campaign has created yet another cloud over the White House. Trump’s decision to fire Comey has raised worrisome questions that will need to be answered to restore confidence not only in the FBI but in the administration and the chief executive.