On Tuesday, President Trump said he fired FBI Director James Comey “based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”
On Thursday, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that “regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”
It’s a stunning reversal. It’s tantamount to an official admission that the original explanation the Trump administration gave for Comey’s firing — which presented a three-page memo from Deputy AG Rosenstein, about Comey’s handling of the 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state, as the justification for the move — was a lie.
The original explanation was never a sustainable one. Ever since Comey was fired, the White House has had to contend with the truth coming out in dribs and drabs from anonymous press reports, all pointing to the president as the real reason Comey was fired — and to investigations into ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government as a key reason for Trump’s anger.
The White House has spent the past two days trying to adjust their spin to accommodate reality. By Thursday, President Trump simply broke the spin.
Here’s the timeline:
May 9, 5:48 pm: A statement attributed to press secretary Sean Spicer is sent to the White House press list. The statement announces that Comey has been fired and says that “President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”
The memo from Rosenstein details Comey’s alleged misconduct regarding the 2016 investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state; no other specific misconduct is mentioned either in Rosenstein’s memo or Sessions’s letter.
May 9, later that evening: During an impromptu press huddle, Spicer gives reporters the following account (paraphrased by the Washington Post’s Robert Costa):
Rosenstein was confirmed about two weeks ago and independently took on this issue so the president was not aware of the probe until he received a memo from Rosenstein on Tuesday, along with a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommending that Comey be fired. The president then swiftly decided to follow the recommendation.
“No one from the White House,” Spicer tells a reporter attempting to clarify. “That was a DOJ decision.”
May 9, late: Deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, speaking to CBS News, cites a “long list of reasons that Director Comey isn’t there,” including that he had “lost the confidence” of the FBI “rank and file.”
May 10, about 11 am: During a photo op with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Trump is asked why he fired Comey. He replies: “He wasn't doing a good job. Very simply. He was not doing a good job."
May 10, midday: Vice President Mike Pence tells reporters that Rosenstein “came to work, sat down and made the recommendation” — strongly implying that Trump hadn’t played a role in initiating the conversation:
The new deputy attorney general, who was just sworn in two weeks ago and confirmed by the FBI, came to work — he is a man of extraordinary independence and integrity and a reputation in both political parties of great character — came to work, 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 concurred with that recommendation, and I personally am grateful that we have a President who is willing to provide the kind of decisive and strong leadership to take the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general.
May 10, 1:49 pm: During the daily press briefing, Huckabee Sanders says that President Trump had long been considering firing Comey, and that he asked Rosenstein and Sessions on Monday, May 8, to write the memo expressing their concerns:
He’d lost confidence in Director Comey, and, frankly, he’d been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected. But he did have a conversation with the Deputy Attorney General on Monday, where they had come to him to express their concerns. The President asked they put those concerns and their recommendation in writing, which is the letter that you guys have received.
Huckabee Sanders also cites Comey’s testimony to the Senate on May 3 (which he reportedly did not clear with Sessions or Rosenstein beforehand) as “one of the big catalysts” that led the president to fire Comey.
May 10, 6:46 pm: The White House provides an official “timeline” of the decision to fire Comey, sent to press via a pool report. The timeline reinforces Huckabee Sanders’s comments that President Trump had, “over the last several months, lost confidence,” and says that Trump was “strongly inclined to remove” Comey after seeing his May 3 testimony. It says that Trump, Rosenstein, and Sessions “discussed reasons for removing” Comey on May 8, followed by written recommendations on May 9.
May 11, 1 pm: In an interview, Lester Holt asks Trump whether he asked Rosenstein and Sessions for a recommendation during the May 8 meeting. Trump responded that “I was going to fire Comey” regardless of what the recommendation said.
HOLT: You had made the decision before they came in the room?
TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey. There’s no good time to do it, by the way. They, they were —
HOLT: Because in your letter, it said, “I accepted their recommendation” —
TRUMP: Yeah, well, they were also —
HOLT: So you had already made the decision.
TRUMP: Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation. [...] (Rosenstein) made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.
The White House hasn’t contradicted its own explanation just because it can’t keep a story straight; the problem is that constant leaks from within the White House, the FBI, and Congress have made it clear that the White House’s initial explanation was a lie.
As early as Tuesday evening, anonymous White House sources were telling reporters that the decision to fire Comey hadn’t come from Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein or Attorney General Sessions, but from Trump himself. And they were saying the real reason for the firing was because Trump blamed Comey for continued public attention to the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with the Russian government. (Comey’s most recent public comments on the Russia investigation came on May 3, during the congressional testimony Huckabee Sanders later called “one of the big catalysts.”)
Meanwhile, Rosenstein was reportedly upset that his memo was being offered as the primary reason for Comey’s firing. According to the Washington Post, he threatened to resign. (Rosenstein denies this.) It’s possible that the White House’s attempts over the past 24 hours to “clarify” that the decision came from Trump to begin with were the result of Rosenstein’s insistence that he not be made out as the originator of the plan.
Instead, however, the president has admitted that his own press secretary was lying — both in the original written statement and in his comments to press Tuesday night. He’s made his own vice president’s comments on Wednesday look either totally clueless or willfully mendacious. And he’s made it clear that his attorney general and deputy AG were used, wittingly or unwittingly, as patsies to invent a post facto reason to fire someone Trump wanted gone.
It’s not exactly a better situation for him, and it certainly doesn’t do anything to inspire belief in anything else he and his administration say.