Yesterday’s Times article about President Trump’s effort to control the Russia investigation had a number of key new pieces of information. Perhaps the most individually notable is the report that Trump instructed White House Counsel Don McGahn to lobby Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia probe. Unbeknownst to Trump and McGahn, Sessions had already decided he would do so. But I was just as interested in how a number of details from the Times piece (in addition to other information published in recent days) fill out our understanding of the timeline surrounding Trump’s decision to fire Comey.
It sheds further light on that mysterious tarmac interlude I’ve mentioned a number of times and which I have always suspected involved an argument and final decision to fire Comey. It also shows much more clearly than we’ve known heretofore the complicity of Sessions and Rosenstein in Trump’s effort to kill the probe. Indeed, what we see more generally is a number of advisors and appointees trying — really, really trying — to prevent Trump from firing Comey but eventually failing and then, having failed, assisting him in doing so and attempting to conceal the reasons for it.
Just as an overview to the below, note that Comey’s two pre-firing days of testimony to Congress frame the outline. It is reportedly in response to the first testimony that Trump begins discussing his desire to fire Comey. It is the second testimony that prompts him to actually do it — apparently after some six weeks of fairly strenuous lobbying by advisors against the idea.
Note too how Sessions’ actions, apparently trying to gin up negative news stories about Comey, appear to have been triggered by a chewing out he got from Trump on the day of Comey’s second testimony. Critically, the Times piece has new evidence that suggests Rosenstein was looped in too, aware of and part of the message Sessions got from Trump that afternoon at the White House.
Here’s the timeline.
March 20th, 2017: First Comey testimony, in which he first publicly announces that there is, in fact, an investigation into whether there was collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election. According to the Times, it is in response to this testimony that Trump begins discussing firing Comey with staff.
May 3rd, 2017: Second Comey testimony to Congress.
May 3rd, 2017: An infuriated Trump vents his anger at Sessions, who was at the White House on the day of Comey’s testimony, over his decision to recuse himself from the investigation and his failure to protect him as Attorneys General Kennedy and Holder had protected Presidents Kennedy and Obama. Trump questions Sessions’ loyalty and says he wants to get rid of Comey.
May 5th, 2017: According to the Times, a Sessions aide approaches a congressional staffer about finding negative information about James Comey and discusses the Attorney General’s desire for “one negative article a day in the news media about Mr. Comey.”
May 5th, 2017: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein approaches a member of the White House Counsel’s office and tells the aide “that top White House and Justice Department lawyers needed to discuss Mr. Comey’s future.”
May 6-7th, 2017: President Trump spends a rainy weekend at his Bedminster, NJ resort. He reportedly obsesses over Comey and over this weekend makes the decision to fire Comey. Trump is accompanied by Hope Hicks, Jared Kushner, KT McFarland, Stephen Miller and Dan Scavino. It is over this weekend that Miller, at Trump’s direction, drafts a letter explaining and justifying the firing of James Comey. The letter is met with stiff internal opposition from White House Counsel McGahn among others and was never sent to Comey or published.
May 7th, 2017: After arriving at Joint Airbase Andrews from New Jersey, Air Force One waits on the tarmac for just under an hour before President Trump deplanes. The delay has never been explained. Trump was on Air Force One with Hicks, Kushner, McFarland, Miller, and Scavino.
May 8th, 2017: Attorney General Sessions and Deputy Attorney Rosenstein meet Trump at the White House to discuss James Comey. Trump says he has decided to fire James Comey and asks Rosenstein to prepare a memo outlining reasons for Comey’s dismissal. Rosenstein is provided with a copy of Miller’s never-sent draft memo.
May 9th, 2017: Rosenstein memo is shared with Sessions and forwarded to the White House and President Trump.
May 9th, 2017: President Trump fires James Comey.
May 10th, 2017: President Trump welcomes Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov along with Ambassador Sergei Kislyak to the White House. Trump tells Lavrov, according to an internal White House summary of the meeting: “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
May 11th, 2017: President Trump tells NBC’s Lester Holt: “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’.”