The White House’s answers to basic questions concerning President Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey have changed by the hour since Press Secretary Sean Spicer first shouted the news to reporters gathered outside his workspace early Tuesday evening.
Was Trump resentful, or perhaps apprehensive, of the FBI’s investigation into whether his presidential campaign colluded with Russian officials? Did newly-minted Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s written argument against Comey really tip the scales after the administration tolerated him, with some unease, for months after assuming office? When did the President actually make up his mind to fire the FBI director, who was less than 4 years into a 10-year term?
Listening to the Trump administration and its allies, Americans heard multiple, at times directly contradictory answers to each of these questions. And the White House likely isn’t done changing its story.
For his part, Trump contradicted his entire communications staff on the rationale for Comey’s dismissal during a highly-anticipated Thursday interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, in which he revealed he had the FBI probe into his campaign on his mind when he decided to go through with bringing the hammer down.
Here’s how the White House narrative evolved in the aftermath of the shock firing.
In the initial aftermath of Comey’s firing, the White House pinned his ouster on a three-page memo from Rosenstein. The deputy attorney general outlined issues with the way Comey handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and, even if he did not literally call for Comey to resign, wrote that the FBI director could not continue in that capacity if he did not pledge to correct and not to repeat those mistakes.
The White House provided the press with Rosenstein’s memo, along with letters from Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and proceeded to emphasize Rosenstein’s letter as the main catalyst for Comey’s departure.
Outside of the White House on Tuesday night, Spicer denied that Rosenstein wrote the memo at the request of the President and said Trump was only made aware of a the deputy attorney general’s review of Comey’s conduct on Tuesday.
“It was all him,” Spicer told reporters. “No one from the White House. That was a DOJ decision.”
Other White House surrogates supported this narrative in interviews Tuesday night. Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders emphasized Rosenstein’s memo in an interview on Fox News, saying Trump had “no choice but to listen” to the deputy attorney general and fire Comey. White House adviser Kellyanne Conway took a similar tack when explaining the reasoning for firing Comey to CNN, pointing out that Rosenstein was confirmed with a large majority in the Senate.
Vice President Mike Pence, too, relied on Rosenstein’s memo to explain the decision in brief remarks to reporters on Wednesday morning.
“The President took strong and decisive leadership here to put the safety and the security of the American people first by accepting the recommendation of the deputy attorney general to remove Director Comey as the head of the FBI,” Pence said, repeating a similar line several more times in his remarks.
He suggested that Rosenstein wrote the memo without any direction from the White House, telling reporters that the deputy attorney general “came to work, sat down and made the recommendation for the FBI to be able to do its job that it would need new leadership.”
Before long, however, that story began to change. Trump, his representatives said, had long considered firing Comey. Rosenstein’s memo was merely the last straw.
At the White House’s daily press briefing Wednesday, Sanders said that Trump had “been considering letting Comey go since the day he was elected,” and she announced new factors that she described as contributing to his firing, including the steady stream of leaks originating in the FBI.
“The President had lost confidence in Comey from the day he was elected,” she said.
Sanders pointed to Comey’s May 3 testimony, in which he described the lead-up to his July 2016 press conference announcing he wouldn’t recommend charges against Clinton, as a turning point. She described Comey’s actions as “atrocities in circumventing the chain of command in the Department of Justice.”
A reporter at the briefing noted that Comey had not actually broken any news on May 3 in describing the July press conference. “My understanding is Wednesday was the first time the director had openly and publicly made that statement and made that clear,” Sanders replied.
Sanders also pointed to Comey’s errors in that testimony, which the FBI corrected just 30 minutes before the director was fired. “That, along with the corrections that had to take place over the last 48 hours, those are all big problems and another, I think, kind of final piece that pushed the President to make the decision that he did,” she said.
Left unsaid was Rosenstein’s reported frustration with the White House’s initial narrative that his memo was the primary justification for Comey’s firing. The Washington Post reported Wednesday night, citing an unnamed person close to the White House, that Rosenstein threatened to quit when he realized the communications strategy.
Various anonymously sourced press accounts Tuesday night and Wednesday began to support the notion that Trump had long stewed at Comey’s role in the Russia investigation. Politico reported that the President “had talked about the firing for more than a week.” The Wall Street Journal reported that, “In the months before his decision” to dismiss Comey, Trump “grew unhappy that the media spotlight kept shining on the director.”
The New York Times reported that Justice Department officials had been charged with making the case against Comey in the week prior to his firing, and that Sessions had been “tasked with coming up with reasons to fire him.”
However, Sanders maintained on Wednesday that Rosenstein’s memo was still ultimately responsible for Comey’s firing, even if it was the culmination of months of gripes and suspicion.
“Any person of legal mind and authority knows what a big deal that is, particularly in the Department of Justice, particularly for somebody like the deputy attorney general who has been part of the Justice Department for 30 years and is such a respected person,” she said, referring to Rosenstein’s memo on Comey’s email investigation actions.
“When he saw that, he had to speak up on that action, and I think that was the final catalyst.”
Trump himself blew up the White House line on the Rosenstein memo Thursday when he told NBC News’ Lester Holt that he planned to fire Comey regardless of the Justice Department’s recommendation.
“I was going to fire Comey. My decision,” Trump said. “I was going to fire Comey.”
— NBC Nightly News (@NBCNightlyNews) May 11, 2017
Pressed on the White House’s assertion that Rosenstein’s recommendation was the direct reason for Comey’s termination, Trump repeated that he planned to fire Comey “regardless of recommendation.”
“He’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander,” Trump said of the fired FBI director. “Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”
The President also revealed that he’d been fuming about the FBI’s Russia investigation when he decided to go through with dismissing the director.
“In fact, 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,” he added.
“Are you angry with Mr. Comey because of his Russia investigation?” Holt followed up.
“I just want somebody that’s competent,” the President responded, adding that he wanted the Russia probe to be “absolutely done properly.”
He told Holt that Comey had “wanted to stay on as the FBI head” and expressed that at a dinner with him.
“He wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on,” Trump said. “And I said I’ll consider, we’ll see what happens.”
He said the dinner was “very nice,” though apparently not enough so to save Comey’s job.
The buck stops with the President
With White House press secretary Sean Spicer still out on U.S. Navy Reserve duty, Sanders headed back into the briefing room on Thursday minutes after Trump’s remarks to do clean-up duty.
Why had the White House insisted that the decision to remove Comey rested on Rosenstein’s recommendation? Sanders said she “hadn’t had a chance to have the conversation directly” with Trump before she spoke to reporters on Wednesday.
“I’d had several conversations with him, but I didn’t ask that question directly, ‘had you already made that decision,'” she said. “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.”
She reiterated that Trump had “been thinking for months” about firing Comey, and said Comey’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee “was the final straw that pushed him.”
“And the recommendation that he got from the deputy attorney general just further solidified his decision,” Sanders said.
ABC reporter Jon Karl asked Sanders to explain the vast disparity between official accounts over the last two days, citing Pence’s remarks on Wednesday that Trump fired Comey on “the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general.”
“Was the vice president in the dark, too?” Karl asked.
“Nobody was in the dark, Jonathan,” Sanders said. “You want to create this false narrative.”
Pressed again on the White House’s initial response to backlash over Comey’s firing, Sanders said there was no attempt to pin Comey’s termination on Rosenstein’s memo — despite the administration’s many attempts to do just that.
“I don’t think there was ever an attempt to pin the decision on the deputy attorney general,” Sanders said. “I think his recommendation, again, it was very clear. The President, though, makes the decision.”
Sanders claimed that nobody has “ever tried to say that this wasn’t the President’s decision, that he wasn’t the one that carried it out.”
In fact, Trump did not personally contact Comey to notify him of his termination. Instead, he dispatched top aide and former bodyguard Keith Schiller to deliver the termination notice to FBI headquarters, apparently unaware that Comey was out of town at the bureau’s Los Angeles field office. Comey ultimately learned of his termination from TV sets as he spoke, according to several reports, and said at first that he thought it was an amusing prank.
Sanders nevertheless insisted that Trump’s decision was the beginning and end of the rationale behind Comey’s firing.
“We know that the President’s been thinking about this for a long time,” Sanders said. “The buck stops with him.”
This post has been updated.