Two days after his abrupt dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, President Donald Trump only deepened the questions swirling around the episode on Thursday, leaving his aides scrambling to explain contradictory rationales and his allies wondering whether his governing agenda had veered drastically off course.
The turmoil surrounding Comey’s dismissal has frustrated the President and his senior-most aides, according to people familiar with the situation. All have expressed anger that the decision to fire Comey wasn’t properly executed and created a sharp backlash. The topic has all but consumed the West Wing, where Trump remained holed up on Thursday.
Attempts to move on from the firing were minimal. Trump’s own official schedule remained empty. Even the normal parade of photo-ops has been scrapped; instead, Trump signed two executive orders behind closed doors Thursday, avoiding any more questions about his decision to remove Comey from his post.
‘I was going to fire Comey’
There are few signs that the crisis is close to lifting. Instead, Trump himself threw two days of official White House accounts into dispute by insisting he’d long planned to fire Comey, even before his Justice Department provided him a reason.
“Regardless of the recommendation, I was going to fire Comey,” he told NBC News in an interview.
Meanwhile, the FBI’s acting director told a congressional panel that Comey enjoyed “broad support” at the FBI, further undercutting Trump’s explanation that Comey had been dismissed because he’d lost the support of his staff.
It all led to the impression of a commander in chief operating in chaotic isolation while leaving even his closest allies to pick up the pieces. At the heart of the storm: the growing sense that Trump fired Comey because of his agency’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, a probe with which Trump had grown increasingly frustrated.
Trump contradicts deputies
Speaking to NBC Thursday, Trump said he fired Comey because he was a “showboat” and a “grandstander” who he’d long ago decided must go.
That flew in the face of what his top deputies — including Vice President Mike Pence — had said publicly about the incident in the 24 hours after the dismissal. Pence said seven times on Capitol Hill Wednesday that Trump acted only after receiving the recommendation to fire Comey from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Trump’s spokeswoman, explaining her own statements that seemed to be contradicted by the President’s interview, said Trump hadn’t told her that he was long planning to dismiss his FBI director.
“I hadn’t had a chance to have the conversation directly,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday. “I went off of the information I had when I answered your question. 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.”
In his interview, Trump said Comey had fostered a toxic atmosphere at the FBI, which his dismissal was meant to remedy. But on Capitol Hill, the agency’s acting director denied that rank-and-file agents at the bureau were dissatisfied with their leadership. Instead, he said Comey commanded widespread respect among his employees, including himself.
“I hold Director Comey in the absolute highest regard,” said the acting director, Andrew McCabe. “I have the highest respect for his considerable abilities and his integrity.”
He said Comey enjoyed “broad support within the FBI and still does to this day” and added “the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep, positive connection to Director Comey.”
People within the bureau said the firing had caused anger among agents toward Trump. A planned visit by Trump to FBI headquarters this week, which Sanders had previewed earlier this week, was still in flux on Thursday afternoon.
The scramble to contain the fallout of Trump’s decision reflects a sudden change for a president who, less than a week ago, was celebrating a major victory: passage of a Republican health care plan in the House of Representatives. The moment has proven distracting for a President facing a series of hard decisions about US policy, as well as a grueling five-stop foreign swing that begins in just over a week.
Trump himself signaled his continued preoccupation with the matter Thursday afternoon, sending a message on Twitter citing his longtime nemesis, comedian Rosie O’Donnell, who called for Comey’s dismissal in December.
“We finally agree on something Rosie,” the President wrote. Moments later, he continued his Twitter tirade: “Russia must be laughing up their sleeves watching as the U.S. tears itself apart over a Democrat EXCUSE for losing the election.”
The messages reflected Trump’s longstanding preoccupation with the claims his campaign coordinated with Russia during last year’s election. Trump has viewed the claims — along with the FBI investigation into them — as a challenge to the legitimacy of his presidency, according to people who have spoken with him.
Trump has been nearly perpetually frustrated by Russia probe, which he believes has overshadowed parts of his agenda, according to people familiar with his thinking.
Trump also bore a grudge against Comey for shooting down his claims during public congressional testimony that Trump’s phones had been tapped by President Barack Obama’s administration, according to sources.
But firing Comey did not end the conversation about the FBI’s look into Russian meddling; if anything, the story has emerged with renewed force.
Trump admitted in his interview with NBC that he’d asked Comey directly whether he was under investigation during a dinner sometime this year, claiming Comey had assured him that he wasn’t. Trump said that Comey had requested the dinner “because he wanted to stay on,” even though FBI directors serve 10-year terms that span presidential administrations.
Speaking Thursday, McCabe called the Russia inquiry “highly significant” and said Comey’s firing would not impede the agency’s work.
“You cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing,” McCabe said.
Meanwhile, at the White House, Trump’s spokeswoman suggested that Comey’s firing could hasten the FBI’s work.
“We want this to come to its conclusion, we want it to come to its conclusion with integrity,” Sanders said, referring to the FBI’s probe into Moscow’s interference in last year’s election. “And we think that we’ve actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.”