The letter President Donald Trump sent to James Comey on Tuesday informing him he was being fired as FBI director contains an extraordinary paragraph.
“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” Trump wrote.
That paragraph of attempted self-exoneration raised questions, especially in light of Comey’s confirmation during a March 20 House hearing that the Trump campaign is under FBI investigation for possible collusion with Russian intelligence. (CNN broke news Tuesday night that federal prosecutors have already issued grand jury subpoenas as part of their probe.)
“I’ve been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” Comey said at the time, later adding that the investigation began in July 2016. “That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
So it’s understandable that, during a Wednesday press conference, White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would be asked about why Trump decided to include the “three separate occasions” paragraph — not to mention about the tension between what Trump claims and what Comey said under oath before Congress.
Huckabee Sanders, however, wasn’t interested in talking about it.
Asked to explain Trump’s claim about what Comey told him, she said, “I’m not going to get into the specifics of their conversations, but I can tell you that Director Comey relayed that information to the president.”
Reporters weren’t satisfied with that. Later during the presser, Huckabee Sanders was asked, “If you don’t want to clarify your comment, why was it put in the letter in the first place?”
Huckabee Sanders replied by saying providing information about Trump’s rationale is “above my pay grade.”
“Look, I think it was something that was far above my pay grade, was decided to be included, and again, I’m not going to get into the specifics of that,” Huckabee Sanders said, before abruptly ending the presser and walking away from the podium.
Indeed, the White House’s line seems to be that because Trump claimed Comey told him he isn’t under investigation in his letter, it must be true. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said basically the same thing during her eyebrow-raising interview with Anderson Cooper on Tuesday night.
“Let me repeat that the president has been told by the FBI director that he is not under FBI investigation, that is right in the president’s letter,” she said.
While Conway was on CNN immediately following Comey’s firing, Huckabee Sanders was on Fox News, urging the country to “move on” from the Russia investigation.
“When are they going to let that go?” she said. “There’s nothing there — we’ve heard that time and time again, we heard it in the testimonies earlier this week, we’ve heard it for the last 11 months, there is no there there. It’s time to move on, and frankly it’s time to focus on the things the American people care about.”
In fact, the main line of defense Trump had been using against collusion allegations was destroyed during a Senate hearing on Monday, Comey’s last full day on the job. The New York Times reports that Comey was fired shortly after asking the Justice Department “for a significant increase in money and personnel for the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election.”