Two days after President Trump abruptly announced he was removing former FBI Director James Comey, the White House is facing tough questions over how the decision was made.
Originally, the White House said Trump fired Comey after reading recommendations from the top ranking officials in the Justice Department, to whom the director of the FBI reports. But by Wednesday, as contradictory information swirled around the internet and Washington, the White House de-emphasized the role of the Justice Department officials and put more responsibility with the President, a narrative Trump confirmed Thursday when he said it was always his intention to fire Comey.
Here’s an evolution of how the responses coming from the White House have changed.
Trump Fired Comey Because Attorneys General Recommended He Do So
The White House initially made clear that Trump was acting on recommendations from the top ranking officials in the Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. “President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in the statement announcing the news.
The White House also released the letter Trump sent to Comey, in which he tells him he decided to fire him after accepting recommendations from Sessions and Rosenstein, and a memo of those recommendations, which included Rosenstein’s argument that Comey should be removed because of the way he handled Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server.
The thrust of these messages was that Rosenstein and Sessions had independently developed this memo and given it to Trump—which Trump’s surrogates confirmed later in the night on cable television.
“Today’s actions have everything to do with what Mr. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who oversees the FBI director and he’s been on the job for two weeks, but he’s been in government for decades and most recently served for President Obama as the U.S. attorney in Maryland. ” White House Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in an attempt to explain the ouster.
Sean Spicer, when asked explicitly by Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs if these plans had been in the works for a long time, said they had not.
“Let me just lay it out for you,” Spicer told Dobbs. “The Director of the FBI reports to the Deputy Attorney General … he made a determination that the FBI Director had lost his confidence, made a recommendation to the Attorney General, the Attorney General concurred with that and forwarded that recommendation today on to the President, who agreed with their conclusions, and terminated the FBI director’s position at the FBI.”
Trump Had Been Weighing Comey’s Ouster Since Election Day
But conflicting reports, including one Sen. Dianne Feinstein relayed to an ABC News reporter that Trump had directed Sessions and Rosentein to look into Comey’s tenure and write these memos, began to cloud this argument. Late Wednesday night, the Washington Post revealed Rosenstein was enraged after the White House pinned the decision to fire Comey on him, information the Department of Justice declined to comment on.
The White House, dogged by questions, changed its tune at the daily briefing Wednesday afternoon.
Trump had been leaning towards ousting Comey, said Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and the recommendations from the Attorneys General were, essentially, just icing on the cake, the “final piece” in formulating Trump’s decision.
“Frankly, [Trump] had been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected,” she said.
Trump did have a conversation with Rosenstein and Sessions Monday, Sanders said. The two officials had come to him with concerns about Comey, which he asked them to put in writing. But, she reiterated, the President had already lost confidence in Comey, insinuating that the memos weren’t as influential as originally emphasized.
Sanders reiterated this explanation Thursday on the network morning shows.
“Is the explanation different today?” CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell asked Sanders Thursday.
“Not at all,” she replied. “He had been pushed to the point where he was ready to make that decision.”
Comey Had Lost Confidence of the FBI
Sanders also said Wednesday that the “rank and file” members of the FBI had lost confidence in Comey, a comment she reiterated on Thursday. However, this was disputed Thursday by Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who told the Senate during a hearing that Comey had “broad support” within the FBI and still does.
“I can confidently tell you that the majority, the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey,” he said.
Sanders stood by her claim when asked about it Thursday. “I’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the Presidents decision,” she said. “I’ve certainly heard from a large number of individuals, and thats just myself, and I don’t even know a lot of people in the FBI.”
Trump Says He Acted Unilaterally
Surrogates can never substitute for the President’s own words. And when Trump finally spoke about his decision, it was clear his answers didn’t align with the ones the White House was initially providing Wednesday, where, after an unpublicized meeting with Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, he simply told reporters Comey “wasn’t doing a good job. Very simply. He was not doing a good job.”
On Thursday, Trump expanded upon these sentiments, telling NBC Nightly News anchor’ Lester Holt he was planning on firing Comey regardless of the recommendations from Rosenstein and Sessions.
“Regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey,” he said. “He’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil.”
Following the release of this interview Thursday, Sanders reiterated the timeline the White House had provided the day before, but also acknowledged she hadn’t had the chance to have a conversation with Trump about when he had made the decision to remove Comey.
“I didn’t ask that question directly, ‘had you already made that decision,” she explained. “I’ve since had the conversation right before I walked on today and he laid it out very clearly. He had already made that decision.”
But, she insisted, when reporters continued to press her, no one in the White House was misinformed.
“Nobody was in the dark,” she said. “If we want to talk about contradicting statements and people who are in the dark, how about the Democrats?”