A comprehensive timeline of all the conflicting explanations for Comey’s firing

White House explanations for Trump’s decision reveal repeated instances of incorrect information.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer walks from the West Wing of White House, in Washington, Tuesday, May 9, 2017, to speak to reporters. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
White House press secretary Sean Spicer walks from the West Wing of White House, in Washington, Tuesday, May 9, 2017, to speak to reporters. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

In a tweet on Friday morning, Donald Trump admitted that his spokespeople cannot get everything right.

He mused about cancelling press briefings in lieu of handing out written responses “for the sake of accuracy.”

But a review of all White House explanations for why Trump decided to fire Comey actually reveals repeated instances of incorrect information, including in written form, and a number of basic contradictions, including:

  • The initial White House statement said Trump acted based on the recommendations from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, but Trump himself told NBC on Thursday that he had already decided to fire Comey before meeting with them.
  • Mike Pence told reporters on Capitol Hill that the firing was not about the Russia investigations, but Trump told NBC he had the investigation in mind when he decided to fire Comey.
  • Kellyanne Conway said Comey’s firing had “zero to do” with the Russia investigation, but the White House timeline released the same day said that after watching Comey’s testimony about the Russia investigation, Trump was “strongly inclined” to remove him.
  • Sean Spicer said that the decision originated from Rosenstein, but Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump had already made the decision.
  • After Spicer, Conway, Pence, and Sanders provided Rosenstein’s letter as a key reason for, if not the entire basis of, Trump’s decision to fire Comey, Sanders said “I don’t think there was ever an attempt to pin the decision on the Deputy Attorney General.”
  • The White House’s use of Rosenstein’s letter as the reason Trump decided to fire Comey reportedly led Rosenstein to threaten to resign

Here is a timeline of all the explanations the White House has offered since Trump fired Comey:

May 9, 5:40 p.m.: White House statement says Trump acted based on AG and Deputy AG’s recommendations:

“Today, President Donald J. Trump informed FBI Director James Comey that he has been terminated and removed from office. 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 shouted the statement to reporters near his office at 5:40 p.m. when he decided an emailed statement was not transmitting quickly enough. Earlier in the afternoon, he sent his longtime security guard to FBI headquarters to hand-deliver the letter stating Comey was “terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.”

The memo sent to Trump from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein outlining his conclusion that Comey had not properly handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices was released soon after. Rosenstein finished the memo: “As a result, the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them. Having refused to admit his errors, the Director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions.” Sessions included a cover letter recommending Comey be dismissed.

Spicer explained to reporters in a gaggle that the decision originated from Deputy AG Rosenstein, not from the White House.

May 9, 8:38 p.m.: Sarah Huckabee Sanders says Comey lost the confidence of FBI employees, Congress, and the American people

Director Comey had lost the confidence of the rank and file within the FBI. I think he certainly lost the confidence of members of both sides — Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, and frankly Tucker he lost the confidence of the American people. This was a guy who was being questioned day after day after day whether or not he was capable of leading the FBI.

Sanders, speaking to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, said “the president was presented with a pretty clear and direct and very strong recommendation by the deputy attorney general,” and that he “made swift and decisive action and let Director Comey go.”

The rationale for firing the FBI director, according to Sanders, was “a series of missteps” and “it goes to Director Comey’s ability to carry out his office and he frankly wasn’t anymore” which was “recognized by his superior.”


“Frankly when the president gets a recommendation from someone like [Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein] he has no choice but to listen to him and to take swift and decisive action,” she concluded.

May 9: 8:39 p.m. Kellyanne Conway said “he took the recommendation of Rod Rosenstein” and wanted to boost low morale

Asked why Trump would fire Comey now, Conway said to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “well I would point them to the three letters that were received today: a letter by President Donald Trump, a letter by Attorney General Sessions, and really, the underlying report by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.” Conway said that Rosenstein “sent out a memo today to the attorney general and the main line, Anderson, says quote, ‘restore public confidence in the FBI.’”

“You’re looking at the wrong set of facts here,” Conway said when Cooper asked about Trump’s reversal from the praise he offered Comey during the campaign. “You’re going back to the campaign. This man is the president of the United States, and he acted decisively today.”

She also said “this is about ‘restoring confidence and dignity to the FBI’ — morale is low.”

When Cooper argued that many were raising questions about what this would mean for the Russia investigation, Conway said: “Today’s actions had zero to do with that. Today’s actions have everything to do with what Mr. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general … if everybody would read his letter…”


“This has nothing to do with the campaign from six months ago,” she said. “This has everything to do with the performance of the FBI director since the President has been in the White House.”

May 9, 9:58 p.m.: Sean Spicer said that Trump decided to accept the AG’s conclusions, in part to restore confidence in the FBI

Spicer, speaking to Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs after Sanders and Conway’s cable interviews, placed the origin of the decision in the hands of Rosenstein.

[Rosenstein] 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 [Tuesday] onto the president, who agreed with their conclusions and terminated the FBI director’s position at the FBI. … The president, when given these recommendations, made a decision to accept their conclusions and to remove Director Comey and begin that restoration of confidence in leadership that needs to happen there. As Deputy Director Rosenstein laid out in that three-page memorandum, there was clearly a loss of confidence in Director Comey in the men and women who so ably serve the FBI.

May 10, 2017, 7:27 a.m.: Trump says Comey lost the confidence of everyone in Washington

May 10, 7:37 a.m.: Conway, to CNN’s Chris Cuomo, said Trump “took the advice” of Rosenstein and decided to remove Comey

“The president took the advice of the deputy attorney general who oversees the director of the FBI, brought those concerns to the attorney general, who brought them to the president, who made a decision to remove him,” Conway said. She said, when pressed on who asked Rosenstein to write the report, “I assume he did the report on his own.”

Cuomo asked about the timing of the firing. “Chris, I’m not going to answer that question because the president of the United States confers with his team on any number of personnel decisions and it’s up to him to have the timing,” Conway said. “You know, you want to question the timing of when he fires, when he hires. It’s inappropriate. He’ll do it when he wants to, just like he fired FBI director Comey when he was faced with evidence that was unignorable now.”

May 10, 2017, 11:06 a.m.: Mike Pence said the firing was not about the Russia investigation, and that the AG’s office acted independently

Pence, asked about the future of the Russia investigation by reporters on Capitol Hill, said “that’s not what this is about.”

“Let me be very clear that the president’s decision to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general to remove Director Comey as the head of the FBI was based solely and exclusively on his commitment to the best interest of the American people and to ensuring that the FBI has the trust and confidence of the people of this nation,” Pence said.

Pence also said that “President Trump made the right decision at the right time to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general,” and the FBI needed a “fresh start.”

May 10, 2017, 1:52 p.m.: The first post-Comey White House press briefing provided several explanations for the firing

Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, stepping in for Spicer, said everyone (including the president, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the American people) lost confidence in Comey. She said that Sessions and Rosenstein had concerns about Comey and Trump and asked for them in writing. She said Comey had committed “atrocities” during the email investigation, and wasn’t doing a good job.

There’s also another nugget of big news, as you guys may have been paying attention, in regard to the termination of the former FBI Director Comey. The President, over the last several months, lost confidence in Director Comey. The DOJ lost confidence in Director Comey. Bipartisan members of Congress made it clear that they had lost confidence in Director Comey. And most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director. Accordingly, the President accepted the recommendation of his Deputy Attorney General to remove James Comey from his position.

She said in the White House press briefing that Trump had lost confidence in Comey “over the last several months.” She said “I think it’s been an erosion of confidence,” starting back to the day he took office. She said Comey had committed “atrocities” in his handling of the Clinton email investigation and “he wasn’t doing a good job.”

“No, the President had lost — again, like I said, he’d lost confidence in Director Comey, and, frankly, he’d been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected,” Sanders said. “But he did have a conversation with the Deputy Attorney General on Monday, where they had come to him to express their concerns. The President asked they put those concerns and their recommendation in writing, which is the letter that you guys have received.”

A reporter asked her, “So it’s the White House’s assertion that Rod Rosenstein decided on his own, after being confirmed, to review Comey’s performance?”

“Absolutely,” she replied. “And I think most of America had decided on their own that Director Comey was not the person that should be leading the FBI, as evidenced by the numerous comments that we’ve seen from Democrat members in the House and Senate, Republican members, members of the FBI, and people across the board.”

May 10, 7:22 p.m.: White House released a timeline of events following press briefing

The story shifted again with this timeline provided by the White House, highlighting Comey’s testimony about the Russia investigation as the event that made Trump “strongly inclined to remove him.”

  • “The President, over the last several months, lost confidence in Director Comey.
  • After watching Director Comey’s testimony last Wednesday [May 3, 2017], the President was strongly inclined to remove him.
  • On Monday [May 8, 2017], the President met with the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General and they discussed reasons for removing the Director.
  • The next day, Tuesday May 9, the Deputy Attorney General sent his written recommendation to the Attorney General and the Attorney General sent his written recommendation to the President.”

May 11, 8:03 a.m.: Sanders on CBS This Morning said Comey’s testimony pushed him to a decision

Again Comey’s Russia testimony is cited as the trigger.

“This is something, frankly, after Wednesday’s testimony he was very engaged on and certainly he had been pushed to the point where he was ready to make that decision. He had a conversation on Monday with the attorney general and deputy attorney general and asked them for their thoughts, their feedback,” Sanders said.

“Let’s not forget there was a near uprising after Comey from members of the FBI.This isn’t just about the president losing confidence. The rank-and-file members within the FBI had lost confidence in the director,” Sanders said.

May 11, 12:57 p.m.: Trump said he was going to fire Comey regardless of anyone’s recommendation, and that he also had the Russia investigation in mind when he decided to fire him

Trump, speaking for the first time in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt about his decision to fire Comey, changed the story again. He said he had made the decision before meeting with Sessions and Rosenstein, and had the Russia investigation in mind when he “decided to just do it.” He also made the argument that Comey was a showboat who had put the FBI in turmoil.

This exchange contradicted almost everything that the White House had said prior to Trump explaining it himself:

HOLT: Monday, you met with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Did you ask for a recommendation?TRUMP: What I did was, I was going to fire. My decision.HOLT: You’d made the decision before they came into the room?TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey. There’s no time to do it.HOLT: In your letter, you said, ‘I accept their recommendation.’ TRUMP: Oh, I was going to fire, regardless of recommendation. He made a recommendation, he’s highly respected — very good guy, very smart guy. And the Democrats like him, Republicans like him. He made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.

Trump called Comey a showboat:

He’s a showboat, he’s grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.

Another clip was released later in the day, where Trump said he was thinking about the Russia investigation when he decided to fire Comey:

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 have won. … So everybody was thinking, they should have won the election. This was an excuse for having lost an election.

May 11, 2:10 p.m.: Sanders tries to clarify the contradicting explanations for the White House press corps

Sanders, asked during the White House news conference about her saying the previous day that Trump had not decided to fire Comey before meeting with Sessions and Rosenstein, said that she had not been able to ask Trump about the timing.

I’ve since had the conversation with him, right before I walked on today, and he laid it out very clearly. He had already made that decision. He had been thinking about it for months, which I did say yesterday and have said many times since. And Wednesday I think was the final straw that pushed him. And the recommendation that he got from the Deputy Attorney General just further solidified his decision and, again, I think reaffirmed that he made the right one.

Asked about McCabe’s comments that Comey enjoyed the confidence of the vast majority of FBI employees, Sanders said: “I’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the President’s decision.”

Asked why Trump asked for the memos from Sessions and Rosenstein, Sanders said:

Look, I think he wanted it to get the feedback from the Deputy Attorney General, who the Director of the FBI reports to. Again, it further solidified the decision that he had made. The only person that can fire Comey was the President. He made that decision.

“He decided he wanted to give Director Comey a chance,” Sanders later said when asked why Trump did not fire Comey on day one. “He did. And he felt like he wasn’t up to the task.”

She also claimed that “I don’t think there was ever an attempt to pin the decision on the Deputy Attorney General.”

Trump’s NBC interview was an effort to right the ship after he spent the two days after the Comey dismissal, as Politco reported, “grumbling to friends and associates about his lousy media coverage — and about the shortcomings of his senior aides.”

It didn’t work, as Politico put it:

Trump did the lengthy interview with Holt even though some on his staff believed it was a bad idea and gave his answers off-the-cuff. One person who spoke to him said he’d been “fixated” on his news coverage and believed his press team was failing him and that he needed “to take the situation into his own hands.”