WASHINGTON — The White House on Thursday scrambled to deny that it intentionally misled Americans about President Trump’s reasons for firing FBI Director James Comey after an unlikely witness torched the official explanation: Trump himself.
The credibility-cracking chaos in the West Wing has not doused but has instead fueled questions about whether Comey’s abrupt dismissal was tied to the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. White House officials have strenuously denied any link.
In a Thursday interview with NBC News, the unpredictable president said he would have ousted Comey even without a Justice Department memorandum sharply critical of Comey’s actions in 2016 and an accompanying letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging Comey’s removal.
“I was going to fire him regardless of the recommendation,” Trump declared to NBC’s Lester Holt.
The president’s confident declaration contradicted days of assurances from top administration officials — including Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — that the abrupt dismissal originated with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo. That two-and-a-half page document sharply criticized Comey’s handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and implied, but never explicitly stated, that he should go. It was accompanied by a letter from Sessions invoking Rosenstein’s criticisms and explicitly calling for Comey’s removal. A statement from White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump “acted based on the clear recommendations of both” Rosenstein and Sessions. And Trump’s firing letter to Comey declared: “I have accepted their recommendation and you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.”
On Wednesday, during a visit to Capitol Hill, Pence had also tied the firing to the documents.
“Let me be very clear that the president’s decision to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general to remove Director Comey as the head of the FBI was based solely and exclusively on his commitment to the best interests of the American people and to ensuring that the FBI has the trust and confidence of the people of this nation,” he told reporters.
Asked whether Pence had been kept in the dark about the president’s true thinking, White House principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Thursday that “nobody was in the dark.”
But Sanders herself had to take heat for denying on Wednesday that Trump had already decided to fire Comey before commissioning Rosenstein’s memo.
“I hadn’t had a chance to have the conversation directly with the president to say. I’d had several conversations with him, but I didn’t ask that question directly: ‘Had you already made that decision,’” she said. “I went off of the information that I had when I answered your questions, I’ve since had the conversation with him, right before I walked on today, and he laid it out very clearly. He had already made that decision.”
The memo “solidified” and “reaffirmed” his position, she said, while accusing Democrats long critical of Comey’s actions in the Clinton investigation of hypocrisy. Though Sessions’ and Rosenstein’s documents didn’t mention the Russia probe, Trump’s letter firing Comey referenced the inquiry, thanking the FBI director for supposedly telling him that he was not under investigation.
During her Thursday briefing, Sanders got into a peculiar long-distance tit-for-tat debate with acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who punctured another White House rationale for dumping Comey.
On Wednesday, Sanders had said that the FBI rank and file had “lost confidence” in Comey. Asked about that assessment on Thursday, McCabe told the Senate intelligence committee “that is not accurate, … the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey.”
Asked about his comments, Sanders replied: “Well, I can speak to my own personal experience. I’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the president’s decision.”
And, she added, “I’ve certainly heard from a large number of individuals, and that’s just myself, and I don’t even know that many people in the FBI.”
Asked to say how many, Sanders replied: “We’re not going to get into a numbers game. I mean, I have heard from a large number of individuals that work at the FBI that said that they’re very happy with the president’s decision.”
When it comes to the Russia probe, Sanders said Comey’s dismissal may help it come to an end.
“We want this to come to its conclusion. We want it to come to its conclusion with integrity,” she said. “And we think that we’ve actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.”
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