In an interview with NBC yesterday, President Trump admitted that his initial explanation of his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey—that he acted based on the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein—was not true. "I was going to fire Comey," Trump told Lester Holt. "Regardless of [the] recommendation, I was going to fire Comey." That admission contradicts what Trump said in his letter to Comey on Tuesday:
I have received the attached letters from the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General of the United States recommending your dismissal as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I have accepted their recommendation and you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.
Trump also admitted that the FBI's investigation of Russian meddling in the presidential election, which includes the possible involvement of the Trump campaign, was on his mind when he fired Comey. "When I decided to just do it," he said, "I said to myself…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." But Trump also offered a new reason for giving Comey the boot, calling him a "showboat" and "grandstander" whose thirst for the spotlight had left the FBI "in turmoil."
In the two days after Trump sacked Comey, the administration told so many contradictory stories about what happened that it can be hard to keep track of them. A review of the shifting explanations underlines Trump's incompetence as a con man:
Wednesday, May 3
"The president has confidence in the director," White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer assures reporters.
Tuesday, May 9
At an afternoon press briefing, Spicer is asked whether Trump still has "full confidence" in Comey. "I have no reason to believe—" Spicer says before interrupting himself to note that "I have not asked the president since the last time we spoke about this."
A few hours later, Spicer issues a statement announcing Comey's dismissal, saying "President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions."
Trump's letter to Comey includes a three-page memo in which Rosenstein criticizes the way Comey handled the FBI's investigation of Hillary Clinton's email practices as secretary of state. Rosenstein says Comey flouted well-established Justice Department practices by holding a press conference to reveal the FBI's findings and by publicly reopening the investigation 11 days before the presidential election. "The way the Director handled the conclusion of the email investigation was wrong," Rosenstein says. "As a result, the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them. Having refused to admit his errors, the Director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions."
Trump also appends a letter from Sessions. The attorney general, who last year repeatedly defended Comey's handling of the Clinton investigation, nevertheless says "the reasons expressed by the Deputy Attorney General in the attached memorandum" have led him to conclude that "a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI."
Referring to the genesis of Rosenstein's recommendation, Spicer says, "It was all him….No one from the White House. That was a DOJ decision."
Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway tells CNN's Anderson Cooper the president "took the recommendation of Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, to whom the FBI director reports."
Wednesday, May 10
"President Trump made the right decision at the right time to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general," Vice President Mike Pence tells reporters on Capitol Hill in the 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."
A few hours later, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders offers a revised narrative. "The president, over the last several months, lost confidence in Director Comey," Sanders tells reporters. "The DOJ lost confidence in Director Comey. Bipartisan members of Congress made it clear that they had lost confidence in Director Comey. And most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director. Accordingly, the President accepted the recommendation of his Deputy Attorney General to remove James Comey from his position."
Sanders says Trump "did have a conversation with the Deputy Attorney General on Monday, where they had come to him to express their concerns." Trump then asked Rosenstein to "put those concerns and their recommendation in writing." She says Rosenstein's description of the "atrocities" that Comey committed by "circumventing the chain of command at the Department of Justice" encouraged Trump, who had been "considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected," to finally act.
Asked if Rosenstein, who had been in office less than two weeks, "decided on his own, after being confirmed, to review Comey's performance," Sanders says, "Absolutely." Asked if "the president had already decided to fire James Comey" and "asked the Justice Department to put together the rationale for that firing," she says, "No."
Thursday, May 11
Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe contradicts Sanders' claim that "the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director." Not so, McCabe says: "Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the F.B.I. and still does….The vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey."
In his NBC News interview, Trump contradicts Sanders' claim that Sessions and Rosenstein persuaded him to finally fire Comey. "Regardless of [the] recommendation," Trump tells NBC News, "I was going to fire Comey." Although Trump concedes that the Russia probe, which he denounced as a "taxpayer-funded charade" on Monday, played a role in his decision, he says he wants the investigation to continue. "If Russia or anybody else is trying to interfere with our elections," he says, "I think it's a horrible thing, and I want to get to the bottom of it."
At a briefing after reporters have seen the NBC interview, Sanders tries to make "the sequence of events" leading to Comey's dismissal "perfectly clear to everyone." Her timeline omits the implication that Trump would not have fired Comey if Sessions and Rosenstein had not recommended it.
Noting that the president's remarks are inconsistent with what Sanders and his other representatives have been saying, a reporter asks, "Were you guys in the dark?" Not at all, Sanders says, although it sure sounds like they were: "I hadn't had a chance to have the conversation directly with the President…I'd had several conversations with him, but I didn't ask that question directly, 'Had you already made that decision?' I went off of the information that 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."
The problem with the latest clarification is that Trump himself presented his decision as a response to the advice he got from Sessions and Rosenstein. Spicer, Conway, Pence, and Sanders all took their cues from him. ABC News reports that Rosenstein "was so upset with the White House for pinning the firing of FBI Director James Comey on him…that he was on the verge of resigning." That threat may explain why Trump decided to come clean, since the resignation of an official whom the White House had presented as a model of rectitude would have made a disastrous P.R. situation even worse. But the head-spinning reversal reinforces the impression that Trump was trying to impede the Russia investigation and confirms something we already knew: The president is a terrible liar—both in the sense that he does it all the time and in the sense that he is bad at it. In light of the former fact, we are lucky for the latter.