On Thursday night, President Donald Trump sat down NBC News’ Lester Holt in a vain attempt to clear the air over the firing of FBI director James Comey. Instead of clearing things up, however, he seemed to make the situation even murkier.
The interview began with Trump admitting that he was “going to fire Comey…there’s no good time to do it, by the way…I was going to fire him regardless of recommendation.” That contention is in direct opposition to statements by press secretary Sean Spicer, Vice President Mike Pence, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and many other top-level Republicans, all of whom spent the past 48 hours explaining that Trump had fired Comey on the recommendation of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.
But the fun was only beginning.
Trump then stated openly that the Russia investigation was on his mind when he fired Comey. “[Rod Rosenstein] made a recommendation, he’s highly respected, very good guy, very smart guy, the Democrats like him, the Republicans like him, he made a recommendation I was going to fire Comey. Knowing, there was no good time to do it. And 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…” This isn’t going to help White House’s contention that the Russia situation wasn’t on Trump’s mind when he fired Comey – though it’s still far more likely that Trump was annoyed that Comey wouldn’t just say that Trump himself is free and clear than that Trump is actively trying to scuttle an investigation into his campaign.
Later on the interview, Trump would contend that although “it should be over with, in my opinion, should have been over with a long time ago,” he wants the investigation “to be absolutely done properly…I might even lengthen out the investigation but I have to do the right thing for the American people. He’s the wrong man for that position.” So Trump supposedly believes that Comey was just the wrong guy to finish the investigation in credible fashion. A few minutes later, Trump insisted the investigation was a hit job by Democrats, and that there was “no collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians. The other thing is the Russians did not affect the vote.” Trump then tried to deny there was an FBI investigation, but had to walk that back after Holt informed him that Comey had testified under oath that there was.
The confusion didn’t end there, either.
Trump confessed that he had dined with Comey after his election – and that during that dinner, Trump had discussed Comey’s future. “He wanted to stay on as FBI head,” Trump recalled, “I said, “I’ll consider, we’ll see what happens,” but we had a very nice dinner, and at that time he told me, ‘You are not under investigation.’” If you remember when Republicans used to oppose law enforcement meeting with the potential targets of investigations (see Lynch, Loretta and Clinton, Bill), that was long ago – now it’s apparently fine for the president to meet with the FBI director who is lobbying for retention, and to be assured by that FBI director that he’s not under investigation. Wow.
Trump did deny that anyone from the White House had asked Comey to end the investigation. At least he did that much.
Next, Trump then had to explain why he would fire Comey with nearly no notice after spending 18 days waiting to fire National Security Advisor Mike Flynn after acting attorney general Sally Yates told him Flynn might be compromised by the Russians. Trump dropped this whopper: “It didn’t sound like an emergency…and [Yates] didn’t make it sound that way either, in the hearings the other day, like it had to be done immediately….I believe it would be very unfair to hear from somebody we don’t even know and run out and fire a general…We ultimately fired, but we fired for a different reason.” Trump then concluded, “We fired him because he said something to the vice president that was not so.” He denied knowledge that Flynn had received payments from the Russian or Turkish governments, and then blamed the Obama administration.
Finally, Trump denied any connections with Russia financially, citing a “certified letter, you understand” from a “tremendous, highly-rated law firm” saying he has no investments in Russia. He said he didn’t think about the optics of having Russian ambassador Sergey Lavrov at the White House the day after Comey’s firing: “I could have waited,” he acknowledged, “but what difference does it make?”
None of this is likely to tamp down speculation about Trump’s timing. There’s only one way for Trump to do that: to appoint a new head of the FBI with bipartisan approval and support. We’ll find out soon enough if Trump has the political acumen to do that, at least.