WASHINGTON — President Trump blew a hole in his administration’s claims that he’d fired FBI Director Comey after encouragement from top Department of Justice officials, telling NBC News that his plan was to fire Comey regardless of their recommendations.
“Regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey,” he told NBC’s Lester Holt. “He’s a showboat, he’s grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that.”
That directly contradicts his own staff’s claims that he had decided to fire Comey, who was leading the investigation into whether Trump’s campaign team colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election, after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote up a formal recommendation to do so.
White House spokesmen repeatedly said Tuesday and Wednesday after the firing that Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions were the ones who brought up firing Comey in a Monday meeting, and Trump then asked him to put that recommendation in writing, putting the onus largely on Trump’s newly confirmed deputy attorney general.
“He asked them for their recommendation, based on the conversation that they had on Monday. He asked them to put that recommendation in writing. But they came to him on his own,” Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a Wednesday press conference, calling Rosenstein’s recommendation “the final catalyst” for Comey’s firing.
It also made a liar out of Vice President Mike Pence, who told reporters Wednesday that Trump fired Comey because Rosenstein recommended it.
“(Rosenstein) came to work, sat down and made the recommendation that, for the FBI to be able to do its job, it would need new leadership,” Pence said. ”He brought that recommendation to the President. The attorney general concurred with that recommendation.”
Trump’s own letter firing Comey said that he “accepted their recommendation” to fire him and that he “concur(red)” with their view, not that he’d made the decision, a clear attempt to skirt blame.
The comments left his staff scrambling to explain why they’d said exactly the opposite just days before.
Huckabee Sanders also admitted that she hadn’t been informed by Trump exactly how things went down.
“I hadn’t had a chance to have the conversation directly with the President,” she said. “I didn’t ask that question directly, ‘have you already made that decision.’”
She also claimed there wasn’t “ever an attempt to the pin the decision on the deputy attorney general.” That’s a stretch given Trump’s own letter firing Comey.
Democrats took aim at the conflicting statements.
“Which one was it? Did the vice president mislead the public or did the president?” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked Thursday afternoon. “And why did it take so long for the White House to get its story straight?”
Trump also repeated his claims that Comey told him three times he wasn’t under investigation, including during a dinner they had where they discussed whether Trump would keep Comey on as FBI director. That’s a major breach of FBI and Justice Department protocol that if true raises major questions about conflicts of interest, as Trump essentially would have been pressing Comey not to investigate him while weighing whether to let him keep his job.
“I actually asked him,” he said. “I said, if it’s possible would you let me know, ‘Am I under investigation? He said, ‘You are not under investigation’.”
“I know I’m not under investigation,” Trump continued.
Huckabee Sanders claimed that she didn’t “see that as a conflict of interest,” though she later conceded she didn’t know what the Department of Justice’s protocols were to the matter.
“I haven’t seen their protocol. I’m only speaking to the information that I have at this point,” she said.
And Trump put the blame on his foot-dragging on firing former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn on his underlings, ignoring that it took 18 days — and public disclosure that Flynn had lied when he said he hadn’t talked to Russia’s ambassador about anything substantive — before he fired his buddy.
“My White House Council, Don McGahn, came back to me and did not sound like an emergency … and [acting Attorney General Sally Yates] actually didn’t make it sound that way either in the hearings the other day, like it had to be done immediately,” Trump said.
The president continued to defend Flynn, calling him “a very good person” and saying it would have been “very unfair” to “immediately run out and fire a general” — even though he didn’t even bother to fire Comey in person, and the former FBI director had to find out mid-speech as TV broke the news on a screen behind him.
Trump promised to allow the FBI’s Russia investigation to go forward, even though he referred to the investigations as “set up by the Democrats.”
“If Russia or anybody else is trying to interfere with our elections I think it’s a horrible thing and I want to get to the bottom of it and I want to make sure it will never ever happen,” he said, ignoring the intelligence community’s consensus that Russia already interfered with the 2016 election.
The comments to NBC weren’t Trump’s only erratic moves.
“We finally agree on something Rosie,” he tweeted Thursday afternoon, retweeting longtime foe Rosie O’Donnell’s December tweet “FIRE COMEY.”
“Russia must be laughing up their sleeves watching as the U.S. tears itself apart over a Democrat EXCUSE for losing the election,” he tweeted a bit later — ignoring his welcoming top Russian officials in the Oval Office on Wednesday, and allowing Russian state media but not U.S. reporters to observe.
Even before the Comey firing blew up in his face Trump was in trash-talking mood. Time Magazine interviewed Trump Monday night and posted parts of the interview Wednesday. In the interview Trump called CNN’s Don Lemon “the dumbest person in broadcasting,” said Chris Cuomo appears on-camera like “a chained lunatic,” and calling Stephen Colbert a “no-talent” and “filthy.”