The fallout from President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to fire FBI Director James Comey is getting weirder by the hour.
In just the past 24 hours, Trump revealed that he’d asked Comey directly several times over the past several months about whether he was under investigation (which, uh, you really aren’t supposed to do); openly admitted that he’d fired Comey over the Russia investigation (contradicting the vice president and his own White House staff); denigrated the former FBI director as a “showboat” and a “grandstander” on national television; and publicly threatened Comey into keeping quiet, otherwise “tapes” of their private conversations might leak.
It’s been a bizarre 24 hours, is what we’re saying here.
If you’re struggling to keep up, don’t worry — we’ve got you covered. Below is a quick recap of the recent developments to help you get your bearings.
Trump asked Comey if he was under investigation
Don’t take the media’s word for it. Here’s the president, speaking to NBC’s Lester Holt in a blockbuster interview last night: "I actually asked him … I said, if it's possible would you let me know, am I under investigation? He said, 'You are not under investigation.'"
According to Trump, they spoke twice by phone and once over dinner during their time together in government.
People close to Comey claim the dinner did not happen the way Trump said it did. In the New York Times, they say the president asked Comey for his loyalty, a trait Trump greatly admires in his staff. Comey said he could only offer “honesty.” When Trump countered with “honest loyalty,” Comey replied, “You will have that.”
Even so, the big thing here is that Trump claims he contacted the FBI director multiple times to discuss whether or not he was the subject of a probe into his campaign’s ties to Russia. As Bob Bauer, who served as White House Counsel to President Barack Obama, writes over at Lawfare, that’s just not something a president should do, for procedural and legal reasons.
On procedure: American citizens and government officials should not “want the most senior political figure in government deciding upon whom to visit the cost and potential ruin of criminal prosecution,” Bauer writes.
On the legality of it, it’s still too early to tell because we don’t actually know the exact content of the Trump-Comey conversations. But, as Bauer notes, “the president has opened himself up to a line of inquiry into whether in this call, perhaps in conjunction with other actions, represents attempted obstruction of justice.”
As my colleague Matthew Yglesias explains, obstruction of justice is an impeachable offense. But if you ask the White House, there’s nothing wrong with what Trump did since apparently many “legal scholars,” who appear at the moment to be TV pundits, said it was okay.
Either way, if it’s later determined Trump fired Comey to halt the progress of the Russia investigation, it would be a huge problem for the administration and Trump’s presidency.
Trump admitted he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation
Oh. Well, then.
In Thursday night’s Holt interview, Trump said flat out that he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation. Again, here’s the president (emphasis added):
He [Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein] made a recommendation, he’s highly respected, very good guy, very smart guy. The Democrats like him, the Republicans like him. He made a recommendation. But regardless of [the] recommendation, I was going to fire Comey. Knowing there was no good time to do it!
And in fact when I decided to just do it 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’ve won.”
When Trump mentions Rosenstein, he’s referring to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, one of the two men the president asked to type up the case to fire Comey based on his handling of the Clinton email investigation.
Trump brought him up because in the original White House explanation for why Comey got fired, they said Trump simply accepted Rosenstein’s and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s recommendation to let Comey go.
But as the president tells us, that’s not what happened. Trump, thinking about the Russia investigation, relieved Comey of his duties. In other words, Comey got fired because of the Russia investigation.
The timing is, of course, dubious. It turns out Comey ramped up the Russia probe a few weeks ago, requesting that briefings on the investigation be daily, not weekly as before. He also asked for more prosecutors to help. In the most DC of circumstances, Comey’s request went to Rosenstein, the guy who, by request of the president, helped get Comey fired.
Then again, it was very hard to believe the White House’s explanation that Trump dumped Comey because of how he handled the Clinton probe. As a candidate, he led “lock her up” chants and later praised Comey’s leadership of the Clinton effort.
Anyone following closely could see that the first explanation was bogus, but it was nice of the president to make it crystal clear for everyone.
Trump talked smack about Comey on national television — and then threatened Comey, mafia-style, on Twitter
Parents usually teach their kids the old adage “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Trump disobeyed that parental directive for basic human decency in front of millions of television viewers, calling Comey a “showboat” and a “grandstander” in his NBC interview yesterday.
He then followed that up Friday morning with a truly disturbing tweet in which he straight-up threatened the former FBI director like some sort of two-bit mafia boss in a cheesy Goodfellas rip-off:
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
Here’s why this short missive is noteworthy.
First, it is a thinly veiled threat. Trump, clearly worried Comey might divulge unflattering information to the media, offers a menacing warning not to do so. He implies he has “tapes” that may contradict whatever Comey might leak.
There is no evidence yet that those tapes exist. But making truthful claims on Twitter is not Trump’s forte. Recall it was on Twitter where Trump asserted that Obama had wiretapped him during the campaign — an assertion that has since been thoroughly discredited by the nation’s top intelligence officials.
Still, the president apparently felt there was nothing wrong with openly threatening his former employee — the man who had been leading the investigation into his campaign’s potential connections to Russia. This is a huge breakdown in decorum, even for Trump.
As my colleague Zack Beauchamp notes, “it’s just an absolutely stunning series of things to say. At a time when people are legitimately worried about the implications of the president canning the FBI director for investigating him for American democracy, the president is going on a tirade that sounds like a parody of a petty authoritarian’s fumings.”
The second thing is not as important, but it is still worth mentioning: Trump may want to lay off any connection he might have with “tapes.”
Talking about “tapes” won’t help Trump shake off the comparisons to former President Richard Nixon. Nixon secretly taped his conversations, including some in the Oval Office. The tapes became a focal point in the Watergate investigation which eventually led to Nixon’s resignation.
The other connection is the unsubstantiated claim in the infamous dossier, which supposedly connects Trump to Russia, that Trump paid prostitutes to “perform a ‘golden showers’ show in front of him.” Among those who believe it exists, there is a worry that the Russians could blackmail Trump by threatening to release the tape and its, uh, contents.
Again, there’s no evidence that the tape exists. But Penthouse will pay $1 million for a copy of it if it does.
Oh, and Trump also threatened to cancel all White House press briefings — you know, one of the main ways the press has been able to hold the Trump administration accountable for its confused and often outright false public messages.
...Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future "press briefings" and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
Almost forgot that one.
So that was just the past 24 hours. God only knows what the weekend will bring.