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A mystery letter could reveal Trump's original justification for firing James Comey

The White House counsel reportedly blocked the letter because it was legally problematic.

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

When President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey back in May, his administration at first offered a laughably implausible pretext. The claim was that Comey’s ouster had nothing to do with the Russia investigation, and that Trump was merely accepting the Justice Department’s recommendation to fire Comey because he had been too tough on Hillary Clinton in the email investigation.

But that wasn’t the initial story. The New York Times’ Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report that Trump and White House aide Stephen Miller first drafted a different letter recommending Comey’s firing — a letter that White House counsel Don McGahn blocked because he found it to be “problematic.”

It’s not yet known what, exactly, the letter said or why the White House counsel found it to be so troublesome. But the Washington Post’s Rosalind Helderman, Carol Leonnig, and Ashley Parker report that it is several pages long and mentions “Trump’s frustration that Comey was unwilling to say publicly that Trump was not personally under investigation in the FBI’s inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.”

According to both outlets, the letter has been turned over to special counsel Robert Mueller — who is already reportedly investigating Trump for obstruction of justice.

The letter could well provide evidence that the White House was deliberately trying to mislead the public about why Comey was fired, though whether that rises to the level of obstruction isn’t clear.

But we learned long ago that the administration’s first explanation for the firing was a sham — from no less a person than President Trump himself.

Only two days after the firing, Trump said in a nationally televised interview that he had made up his mind to get rid of Comey regardless of what his Justice Department recommended, and that the Russia investigation was on his mind when he made that decision.

“Regardless of [the Justice Department’s] 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,’” Trump explained.

The stunning admission, paired with a series of leaked reports that Trump privately asked for Comey’s loyalty and asked him to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn, spurred Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Robert Mueller as a special counsel in charge of the Russia probe.