WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump and his aides claimed he fired FBI Director James Comey Tuesday because Comey mishandled the bureau’s investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. They argued it had nothing to do with the fact that Comey was leading an investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian interference in the 2016 election. But by Wednesday morning, that story — which never made much sense in the first place — was falling apart, and the White House was stumbling to defend it.
Hours after Comey was fired, Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump adviser, appeared on television to defend the president’s decision. At first, Conway stuck to the talking points, reading verbatim from a three-page letter written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, criticizing Comey’s treatment of Clinton. But minutes later in the same interview, she contradicted herself.
“This has nothing to do with the campaign from six months ago,” Conway told CNN’s Anderson Cooper early Wednesday morning. “This has everything to do with the performance of the FBI director since the president has been in the White House.”
Trump addressed the issue publicly for the first time Wednesday morning, after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. He didn’t mention Comey’s treatment of Clinton. “[Comey] wasn’t doing a good job,” Trump told reporters. “Very simply. He was not doing a good job.”
Trump had been considering firing Comey “pretty much since the day he took office,” Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday during the press briefing. The FBI director had committed “atrocities,” she said. She stuck with the idea that Comey’s treatment of Clinton during the campaign was a fireable offense. The final straw, Sanders said, was Comey’s testimony to Congress last week. Comey told lawmakers he had bypassed then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and held a press conference on the Clinton email matter because he believed Lynch had a conflict of interest.
Comey went “around the chain of command,” Sanders said Wednesday. “And that is simply not allowed.”
McClatchy reported Wednesday that Trump asked Rosenstein to write the recommendation justifying firing Comey. Senior White House and Justice Department officials ― including Attorney General Jeff Sessions ― were asked to come up with reasons to fire Comey, Trump aides told the New York Times on Tuesday.
That’s not true, Sanders claimed Wednesday.
According to the White House, Trump was leaning toward firing Comey after watching him testify before Congress last week. During that testimony, Comey defended his handling of the Clinton email investigation and brushed away questions related to the Russia probe. On Monday, Trump met with Rosenstein and Sessions and they discussed why Comey should be removed, a White House official told reporters Wednesday night. A letter from Rosenstein dated Tuesday detailed Comey’s various missteps in the Clinton email investigation, but did not explicitly call for his removal. Sessions sent a second, shorter letter expressing support for Rosenstein.
The idea that Trump fired Comey because of how he handled the Clinton email investigation was inconsistent with the president’s previous actions. Trump has long clashed with Comey over issues unrelated to the White House’s stated reason for his ouster. He fumed over Comey’s decision to confirm in March that Trump associates were under FBI investigation for possible ties to Russian government officials. He resented Comey’s refusal to back his unsubstantiated claim that former President Barack Obama spied on him. And during the campaign, he criticized Comey’s decision to recommend no criminal charges be filed against Clinton for her use of a private email server ― the opposite of the argument Rosenstein made in the letter the White House claims was the impetus for Comey’s dismissal.
“Very very unfair! As usual, a bad judgement,” Trump tweeted in July after Comey recommended no criminal charges against Clinton. Trump made no mention of Comey’s blistering public criticism of Clinton’s handling of classified information.
Trump later praised Comey for notifying Congress that the FBI was examining newly discovered emails related to the Clinton investigation days before the election ― a controversial move that Democrats say contributed to Clinton’s loss. “It took guts,” Trump said of Comey’s decision in October. “He brought back his reputation. He brought it back.”
Rosenstein specifically cited Comey’s July criticism of Clinton and his October letter to lawmakers as reasons he should be fired.
If Trump truly believed Comey had treated Clinton unfairly, it would have made sense for him to fire the FBI director on his first day in office.
But when Trump entered the White House, there was no indication he was unhappy with Comey. On his fourth day as president, Trump blew a kiss toward Comey, patted him on the back and remarked on how “famous” the FBI director had become.
Paul Blumenthal contributed reporting.
This story has been updated to include comments the White House made Wednesday night.