WH Scrambles To Contain Fierce Comey Firing Backlash It Didn’t Anticipate

Carolyn Kaster/AP
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Tierney Sneed contributed reporting.

Tuesday night’s bombshell news that President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey landed with all the hallmarks we have come to expect from the chaotic administration: mass confusion, tone deafness and incorrect assumptions about the way Washington operates.

Lawmakers arrived Wednesday morning on Capitol Hill faced a barrage of questions—about the fate of the Russia investigation, the need for a special prosecutor, and why the White House was so unprepared for the fallout from firing Comey.

“Let me put it this way, I think they’re fully aware now,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters. “I think the White House, after multiple conversations with many people over the last 12 to 14 hours, understands that they’ve created a really difficult situation for themselves, and to move beyond this in a way that gives the American people faith, and Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate faith, it’s a very narrow and tough path for them to follow.”

Trump didn’t give Comey, who was on the road visiting FBI employees in Los Angeles, even a minute’s advance notice of his termination. Comey reportedly was mid-speech when he saw the news flash across a TV screen in the back of the room, and initially thought it was a prank by his staff. Other top FBI officials were similarly blindsided, and rank-and-file agents broke down crying when they heard the news. “We were caught totally off guard,” one agent told Politico.

The rollout in the press was botched as well.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer attempted to send a statement by email to the White House press corps around 5:40 p.m. Tuesday night, according to the Washington Post, but technical difficulties prompted him to instead stand in his office door and shout the statement to reporters who happened to be standing nearby.

Then, hours after the administration informed reporters that there would be no further remarks about Comey’s firing, several White House officials were deployed to various TV networks late Tuesday night to defend the decision. There, when asked if the firing was related to Comey’s investigation into ties between Trump campaign officials and Russian operatives, they deployed such savvy arguments as: “It’s not a cover up” and “There is no ‘there’ there. It’s time to move on.”

Spicer, who had been hiding in the bushes conferring with his staff, also held an off-camera gaggle in the dark in the White House driveway, largely telling reporters to direct their questions to the Justice Department.

Why was the White House so unprepared? The New York Times reported that Trump had been plotting to fire Comey for at least a week, and directed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had formally recused himself from working on anything related to the Russia investigation, to gin up a justification. The decision ultimately hinged on the very act that arguably won Trump the presidency: Comey’s handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server, which Trump has repeatedly praised.

The administration reportedly believed that explanation would prevent Democrats from criticizing Comey’s dismissal, since they too had slammed the former FBI director’s role in the Clinton case. But not only did Democrats swiftly condemn Comey’s firing as a possible cover up and call for the appointment of a special prosecutor to take over the Russia investigation—several Republicans joined them as well.

“I’ve talked to a number of Republicans this morning who are just as upset about it as Democrats,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told TPM.

Overall, Trump and his inner circle were caught completely off guard by the backlash. They had assumed firing Comey would be a “win-win,” and had done little to prepare a communications strategy to defend the move because they assumed no such effort was needed.

Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Wednesday that the White House found it “startling” that Democrats were not “celebrating” the news.

Trump publicly aired his confusion in an early morning tweetstorm, griping that Democrats had previously called for Comey’s firing and asserting: “When things calm down, they will be thanking me!”

Then there are the optics of Trump meeting with Russia’s top diplomat the morning after the firing, amid widespread speculation from lawmakers that Comey was canned in order to derail the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with the Russian government.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared delighted by the news of Comey’s sacking Wednesday morning, cracking jokes to reporters asking how the decision would influence his upcoming meeting with Trump.

The tone deafness continued later Wednesday morning, when reporters were ushered into the Oval Office to witness an unannounced meeting between Trump and Henry Kissinger. The meeting with former President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State comes as many lawmakers are accusing Trump of acting in a “Nixonian” fashion—drawing comparison’s between Comey’s firing and the infamous “Saturday night massacre” of 1973.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.
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