President Donald Trump asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to reference the Russia investigation in his memo explaining the decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, according to a memo written by then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe at the time of the firing and reported by the New York Times and USA Today.
Trump, in a tweet, quickly denied that the firing decision had anything to do with Russia — even though he told Lester Holt last year, right after the firing, that the Russia investigation is why he did it.
Last spring, McCabe wrote a confidential memo recounting a conversation with Rosenstein in the days after Comey’s firing in May 2017, the Times reported on Wednesday. Rosenstein wrote a memo recommending Trump fire Comey because of his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. By McCabe’s account, Rosenstein said the president had originally asked him to reference Russia in his memo but he didn’t get into detail about what Trump wanted him to say.
According to USA Today, McCabe documented the conversation out of fear that Rosenstein might have provided Trump cover for firing Comey. McCabe read Rosenstein’s comments as possible evidence that Comey’s firing was linked to the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
One person told the Times that Trump had wanted Rosenstein to say he wasn’t personally under investigation in the Russia inquiry. Rosenstein ultimately did not include any mention of Russia in his memo.
McCabe was fired earlier this year after the Justice Department’s inspector general found he displayed a “lack of candor” in an internal investigation about leaks pertaining to a Clinton investigation.
Rosenstein has been tasked with walking a fine line at the Justice Department, absorbing attacks from the White House and its Republican allies and protecting special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation while at the same time appeasing Trump. To complicate matters further, his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has faced multiple public attacks from Trump after he recused himself from the Russia investigation.
Rosenstein seemed to address his precarious position in a speech earlier this month. “There have been people who have been making threats privately and publicly against me for quite some time,” he said. “I think they should understand by now the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted.”
Trump tweeted on Thursday that firing Comey had nothing to do with Russia. If only he hadn’t already said the opposite.
“Not that it matters but I never fired James Comey because of Russia!” Trump tweeted on Thursday, apparently in reaction to the McCabe memo reports. “The Corrupt Mainstream Media loves to keep pushing that narrative, but they know it is not true!”
Not that it matters but I never fired James Comey because of Russia! The Corrupt Mainstream Media loves to keep pushing that narrative, but they know it is not true!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 31, 2018
Just days after firing Comey, Trump sat down with NBC’s Lester Holt and said he decided to fire the FBI director because of “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia,” which he said was a “made-up story.” He also mentioned Rosenstein:
He [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.”
To be sure, Trump and the White House have presented multiple reasons for firing Comey. Initially it was the Clinton investigation. Then, by Trump’s own admission, Russia. In May, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump doesn’t need to explain his decision — he can fire and hire whomever he wants.
Why did Trump fire Comey?— Chris Megerian (@ChrisMegerian) May 3, 2018
"He doesn't have to justify his decision. The president has the authority to hire and fire," @PressSec says
Rudy Giuliani, now a lawyer for Trump, recently gave Fox News yet another justification. “He fired Comey because Comey would not, among other things, say that he wasn’t a target of the investigation,” he said.
Comey’s firing is a major piece of the puzzle in the special counsel’s investigation. McCabe has reportedly turned over this memo — and others he kept during his FBI tenure — to Mueller’s team.