After President Trump summarily fired FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday night, the White House told reporters that his dismissal was all about Hillary Clinton’s emails — that Comey had mishandled the probe into Clinton’s private email server and thus could no longer be a credible head of the FBI.
This is nearly impossible to believe. Trump’s own past statements and actions, as well as those of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, show that they don’t think Comey did anything to discredit himself when it came to Clinton’s emails.
The White House is almost certainly lying to us (and trying to obscure the real reasons for his ouster, which likely had to do with the FBI’s ongoing probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia).
Here are three pieces of evidence that help prove it.
1) Trump has long maintained Comey was right to release the Clinton letter
When Comey released his fateful letter notifying Congress about the discovery of more Clinton emails in late October, Democrats raised a giant fuss. The FBI was intervening in the election and politicizing our legal system, they warned.
These are the same criticisms that the Trump team now wants us to believe led him to fire Comey. Except here’s what Trump said at the time:
Hillary and the Dems loved and praised FBI Director Comey just a few days ago. Original evidence was overwhelming, should not have delayed!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 30, 2016
Shortly after inauguration, Trump held a ceremony celebrating law enforcement in which he singled out Comey and literally hugged him:
There is zero evidence the president changed his mind on this. Just one week ago, he tweeted that Comey was — if anything — too soft on Clinton, a point he made during the campaign as well:
FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds! The phony...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 3, 2017
...Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 3, 2017
Clearly, the president doesn’t mind that Comey’s behavior violated longstanding FBI norms against trying targets of an investigation in the media, as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote in a memo to the White House calling for Comey’s head. If anything, Trump’s views go the other way: Comey didn’t go far enough in besmirching Clinton’s reputation.
2) Attorney General Jeff Sessions agreed with Trump about this
In Trump’s “you’re fired” letter to Comey, he cites the advice of Attorney General Sessions as a key reason for the dismissal. “I ... concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” Trump wrote.
The problem is that Sessions also has a public record of defending Comey’s conduct after his eleventh-hour intervention in the US election.
“He had an absolute duty, in my opinion, 11 days or not, to come forward with the new information that he has and let the American people know that, too,” Sessions said in an October 30 Fox Business appearance.
Here’s video of the whole appearance — in which Sessions does criticize Comey, somewhat, but then says the letter means that “it’s back on track again, this investigation” (video courtesy of the Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky):
Nothing Sessions has said since gives us reason to believe he changed his mind.
3) Trump asked Comey to stay on in January
Shortly after taking office, Trump reiterated his confidence in Comey, whose 10-year term wasn't slated to end until year 2023.
“Yes, he has confidence in Director Comey,” Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said of Trump in a January 15 ABC News interview. “We have had a great relationship with him over the last several weeks. He’s extremely competent. But, look, his term extends for some time yet. There’s no plans at the moment in changing that term. And we’ve enjoyed our relationship with him and find him to be extraordinarily competent.”
About 10 days later, the New York Times reported that Comey was, in fact, staying. The facts of how Comey handled the Clinton investigation were all well-known at this point. It’s hard to understand what would have changed between now and then that would have led Trump to view Comey’s handling of the situation so differently.
The fact that the White House is claiming this is what happened is ludicrous — and, as my colleague Matt Yglesias observes, ludicrous in a particularly telling way.
“The bad faith involved in this move is both palpable and obvious,” Yglesias writes. “Anyone with half a brain can see that sacking Comey is ... part of covering something up.”