How Trump’s festering anger at Comey ended in firing
Despite the shock in Washington, FBI director’s dismissal was a long time coming
By the end, neither of them thought much of the other. After President Donald Trump accused his predecessor in March of wiretapping him, James Comey, the FBI director, was flabbergasted. The president, Comey told associates, was “outside the realm of normal”, even “crazy”. For his part, Trump fumed when Comey publicly dismissed the sensational wiretapping claim.
In the weeks that followed, he grew angrier and began talking about firing Comey. After stewing last weekend while watching Sunday talk shows at his New Jersey golf resort, Trump decided it was time. There was “something wrong with” Comey, he told aides.
The collision between president and FBI director that culminated with Comey’s stunning dismissal on Tuesday had been a long time coming. To a president obsessed with loyalty, Comey was a rogue operator who could not be trusted as the FBI investigated Russian ties to Trump’s campaign. To a lawman obsessed with independence, Trump was the ultimate loose cannon, making irresponsible claims on Twitter and jeopardising the bureau’s credibility.
The White House, in a series of shifting and contradictory accounts, first said Trump decided to fire Comey because the attorney general and his deputy recommended it. By Wednesday, it had amended the timeline to say that the president had actually been thinking about getting rid of the FBI director as far back as November, after he won the election, and then became “strongly inclined” after Comey testified before Congress last week.
For public consumption, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, said on Wednesday that Trump acted because of the “atrocities” committed by Comey during last year’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email. But in private, aides said, Trump has been nursing a collection of festering grievances, including Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation, his seeming lack of interest in pursuing anti-Trump leaks and the perceived disloyalty over the wiretapping claim.
“He’d lost confidence in Director Comey and, frankly, he’d been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected,” Huckabee Sanders said.
Comey’s fate was sealed by his latest testimony about the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election and the Clinton email inquiry. Trump burned as he watched, convinced that Comey was grandstanding. He was particularly irked when Comey said he was “mildly nauseous” to think that his handling of the email case had influenced the election, which Trump took to demean his own role in history.
At that point, Trump began talking about firing him. He and his aides thought they had an opening because Comey gave an incorrect account of how Huma Abedin, a top adviser to Clinton, transferred emails to her husband’s laptop, an account the FBI later corrected.
At first, Trump, who is fond of vetting his decisions with a wide circle of staff members, advisers and friends, kept his thinking to a small circle, venting his anger to vice-president Mike Pence; the White House counsel, Donald McGahn II; and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who all told him they generally backed dismissing Comey.
Another early sounding board was Keith Schiller, Trump’s long-time director of security and now a member of the White House staff, who would later be tasked with delivering the manila envelope containing Comey’s letter of dismissal to FBI headquarters, an indication of just how personal the matter was to the president.
Chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who has been sharply critical of the FBI, questioned whether the time was right to dismiss Comey, arguing that doing it later would lessen the backlash, and urged him to delay, according to two people familiar with his thinking. Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, at one point mulled similar concerns, but was supportive of the move to the president.
The justice department began working on Comey’s dismissal. Attorney general Jeff Sessions instructed his deputies to come up with reasons to fire Comey, according to a senior official. On Monday, Trump met with Sessions and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein. White House officials insisted Sessions and Rosenstein were the ones who raised concerns about Comey with the president and that he told them to put their recommendations in writing.
At the same time, he signalled his thinking on Twitter, essentially calling for the investigation into the Russian meddling to be halted. “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?” he wrote on Monday afternoon.
Early on Tuesday, he made his final decision, keeping many aides, including the president’s communications team and network of surrogates, in the dark until news of the firing leaked out late in the afternoon.
About an hour before the news broke, an administration official involved in communications and strategic planning joked that the relatively news-free events of Monday and Tuesday represented the start of a much-needed weeklong respite from the staff’s non-stop work over the past few months.
As the announcement was imminent, Trump called several congressional leaders from both parties to let them know. He caught senator Lindsey Graham on his mobile phone as the lawmaker was walking home after a vote. Graham told him that a fresh start was good for the FBI.
But senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader who had been harshly critical of Comey for his conduct during last year’s election, told Trump it would be a mistake. Trump seemed surprised by the reaction, possibly assuming that Democrats would be happy to remove the FBI director some blamed for Clinton’s loss.
Another Democrat he reached was senator Dianne Feinstein of California. “When I talked to the president last night,” she recalled, “he said: ‘The department’s a mess. I asked Rosenstein and Sessions to look into it. Rosenstein sent me a memo. I accepted the recommendation to fire him.’”
Feinstein noted that Rosenstein had just been confirmed by the Senate. “I mean, my goodness. This is a man who’s been there for two weeks. So I’m a bit turned off on Mr Rosenstein.”
In letters released Tuesday evening, Trump explained the firing by citing Comey’s handling of the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server – a justification that was rich in irony, White House officials acknowledged, considering that as recently as two weeks ago, the president appeared at a rally where he was serenaded with chants of “Lock her up!”
On Wednesday, the president and his staff added to their criticism of Comey’s conduct on the Clinton inquiry to include a wider denunciation of his performance. “He wasn’t doing a good job,” Trump said, before entering a meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. “Very simply, he was not doing a good job.”
Yet even in his letter to Comey, the president mentioned the Russia inquiry, writing that “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.” And that reflected, White House aides said, what they conceded had been his obsession over the investigation Trump believes is threatening his larger agenda.
The White House was rocked by the backlash to the announcement. Three senior White House officials conceded that its public explanation was an unmitigated mess, blaming the communications shop, with one describing it as the “weakest” element of the West Wing.
Despite Trump’s apparent endorsement, Comey remained sceptical about his future. He believed his unwillingness to put loyalty to Trump over his role as FBI director could ultimately lead to his sacking
Looking back, the two men may have been destined to clash. Five days after Trump was elected, he said in an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes that he had not made up his mind about keeping Comey. But during the transition, Trump and his aides asked Comey to remain on as director.
Despite Trump’s apparent endorsement, Comey remained sceptical about his future. He believed his unwillingness to put loyalty to Trump over his role as FBI director could ultimately lead to his sacking. “With a president who seems to prize personal loyalty above all else and a director with absolute commitment to the constitution and pursuing investigations wherever the evidence led, a collision was bound to happen,” Daniel Richman, a close Comey adviser and former federal prosecutor, said on Wednesday.
Still, according to associates, Comey thought the president was unlikely to get rid of him because that might be interpreted as a conclusion that the FBI director was wrong to announce shortly before the election that he was re-examining the email case, which would call into question the legitimacy of Trump’s victory.
While Trump publicly insisted that he had confidence in Comey, the hostility toward the FBI director in the West Wing in recent weeks was palpable, aides said, with advisers describing an almost ritualistic need to criticise the Russia investigation to assuage an anxious and angry president.
Roger Stone, a long-time informal adviser to Trump who has been under FBI scrutiny as part of the Russia inquiry, was among those who urged the president to fire Comey, people briefed on the discussions said. Trump denied on Twitter on Wednesday morning that he had spoken to Stone about the FBI director, and Stone declined to describe his interactions with the president in an interview. But two long-time Trump associates with knowledge of the matter said the two had recently discussed their dissatisfaction with Comey and his inquiry.
Whatever the specifics, Stone ultimately reflected the president’s view of Comey. As Stone put it shortly after the dismissal became public on Tuesday, “There was a sense in the White House, I believe, that enough was enough when it came to this guy.”
New York Times