Ten days after the deed was done, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and President Donald Trump still aren’t on the same page about why FBI Director James Comey was fired amid an active FBI investigation into Trump’s campaign for possible collusion with Russia.
During a Thursday afternoon closed-door meeting with senators at the Capitol, Rosenstein confirmed what Trump admitted during an interview last week: that the president had decided to fire Comey before Rosenstein was asked to write a memo justifying the move. (Rosenstein wouldn’t say whether Trump or Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who promised to recuse himself from Trump-Russia matters, made the request.)
Rosenstein’s revelation is significant. It indicates the White House’s initial rationale for Comey’s firing —that “President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions,” as Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement — was a lie.
The truth is more likely what Trump told NBC News on May 11: He fired Comey because he was frustrated about the escalating FBI investigation of his campaign.
“It was very clear that [Rosenstein] learned before he wrote the memo that Comey was going to be removed,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said following the meeting, according to Politico. “Somebody made a decision to remove Comey before he wrote the memo.”
Meanwhile, during a news conference across town at the White House, Trump told a different story. While discussing Comey’s firing, Trump asserted that “Director Comey was very unpopular with most people” — even though the acting FBI director’s sworn testimony last week contradicts that notion — and said he “also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein.”
Trump also suggested that Rosenstein decided to write the memo on his own, saying Comey’s “very poor performance” during his final testimony before Congress as FBI director was “why the deputy attorney general went out and wrote his very, very strong letter.”
But at almost the very same time Trump was citing the memo, Rosenstein himself was telling senators that Trump’s explanation is nothing but a pretext.
Rosenstein’s meeting with senators came a day after he announced the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the investigation of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.
During the meeting on Thursday, Rosenstein referred most questions about the investigation to Mueller. He did, however, indicate that the investigation of the Trump campaign now has a criminal aspect.
In a statement, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said Rosenstein “made clear that the primary mission of the Special Counsel, who will now lead the DOJ investigation, is to determine whether or not there were any violations of criminal law.”
But Rosenstein’s unwillingness to answer substantive questions frustrated some senators. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said, “I’m just really disturbed by the whole presentation… We learned nothing except things designed to make [Rosenstein] look good,” according to Politico.
The Capitol meeting came on the same day the New York Times published a report detailing concerns Comey expressed about Rosenstein before his firing — a firing people close to Comey say happened after the former FBI director refused to pledge personal loyalty to Trump during a private dinner.
When Rosenstein was nominated for the deputy AG role, Comey reportedly told a confidante, “I have some concerns.”
“He’s good, he’s solid but he’s also a survivor and you don’t survive that long without making some compromises and I’m concerned about that,” Comey added, according to the Times’ source.
That Comey confidante — Benjamin Wittes, editor in chief of Lawfare — later posted his own recollection of that conversation.
“[Comey] was asking himself, I suspect: What loyalty oath had Rosenstein been asked to swear, and what happened at whatever dinner that request took place?” Wittes wrote.
The day after Comey’s firing — a time when the White House was still citing his memo as the reason Trump fired Comey — Vice President Pence heaped praise on him, saying he’s “a man of extraordinary independence and integrity and a reputation in both political parties of great character.” Trump echoed Pence, saying Rosenstein is “highly respected, [a] very good guy, very smart guy.”
But reports soon swirled that Rosenstein was thinking of resigning in response to the White House pinning blame for Comey’s firing on him. While Rosenstein was lavished with praise by the administration just last week, his decision to appoint a special counsel sparked a sudden change in tone from Trump, who (indirectly) accused him on Thursday of participating in “the single greatest witch hunt of a political in American history!”
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
During his news conference, Trump unequivocally denied ever asking Comey to pledge loyalty to him. He was less categorical, however, about whether anyone associated with his campaign colluded with Russia.
UPDATE (12:30 p.m.): The prepared remarks Rosenstein made at the beginning of his meeting with senators on Thursday and with House members on Friday were publicly released on Friday.
Almost the entirety of Rosenstein’s remarks consisted of criticizing Comey for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. He said, for instance, that Comey’s decision to make public his decision to revive the probe in late October “flouted rules and deeply engrained traditions; and guaranteed that some people would accuse the FBI of interfering in the election.”
BREAKING: DAG rosenstein releases his opening statement from his congressional briefings pic.twitter.com/hED2IzzVGH
— kelly cohen (@politiCOHEN_) May 19, 2017
This line of criticism is ostensibly what informed Trump’s decision to fire Comey, although Rosenstein does note that his memo “is not a statement of reasons to justify a for-cause termination.” But the cynicism of how Trump used it is stunning. Trump himself praised Comey’s conduct at the time, saying “it took guts for director Comey to make the move that he made… It took a lot of guts.” He tweeted that Comey should’ve actually been harder on Clinton.
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
But now the Trump administration would have you believe they found Comey’s rough treatment of Clinton to be so problematic that it played a significant role in the president’s decision to fire him.
While Rosenstein devotes almost the entirety of his remarks to criticizing Comey, and says he and Attorney General Sessions “discussed the need for new leadership at the FBI” during one of their first meetings last winter, he barely eludes to the elephant in the room — that the presidential campaign Trump and Sessions were a part of is under FBI investigation, and they therefore had a massive conflict of interest when they moved to fire the person overseeing it.