Trump Planned To Fire Comey Regardless Of Justice Department Recommendation
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We begin with the latest on President Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey. If you were hoping for greater clarity today - no such luck. Prior explanations of why Comey was fired were contradicted by the president himself. And White House characterizations of the FBI Russia investigation were disputed by the acting director of the bureau.
First, Trump on Trump. The president gave an interview to NBC News anchor Lester Holt. The FBI, Trump said, was in tumult. He said Comey was a showboat. And as for the president's meeting with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They were....
LESTER HOLT: Because in your letter, you said, I accepted their recommendations.
TRUMP: Yeah, well, they also...
HOLT: So you had already made the decision.
TRUMP: Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.
HOLT: So there was (unintelligible).
TRUMP: He 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. But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.
SIEGEL: The White House had released and cited Rosenstein's memo on Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton emails investigation as the reason for Comey's dismissal. As for Trump's statement in his Monday night letter that Comey had told him three times that he, Trump, was not under investigation, here's what he told NBC's Holt about that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HOLT: And did you ask, am I under investigation?
TRUMP: I actually asked him, yes. I said, if it's possible, would you let me know? Am I under investigation? He said, you are not under investigation.
SIEGEL: Trump said that was at a dinner when Comey was asking to keep his job at the FBI. Well, joining me now to discuss today's events are NPR's Mara Liasson at the White House. Hiya, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: And Washington Post national political reporter Robert Costa, who joins us from Capitol Hill. Welcome to the program, Robert.
ROBERT COSTA: Great to join you.
SIEGEL: Mara, first, has the White House managed now to put together a coherent version of why and how Trump fired Comey?
LIASSON: Well, they're certainly trying. Today Sarah Sanders briefed the press again, and she has pretty much dropped the talking point that the president merely followed the recommendation of Rosenstein and fired Comey because he was mean to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Now she says I hadn't had a chance to talk to the president, but I have had a chance now. And he told me he had already planned to fire Comey. She said again that the Wednesday hearing where Comey testified was the final straw. That's the hearing where, among other things, Comey said that he was mildly nauseous to think he might have had an impact on the election.
But this happened so fast and with so little input and so little planning on the part of the White House that the White House communications staff was really caught flat-footed. And they have had to backfill an explanation for what the president did, and that's why their story has been so confusing for the last couple of days.
SIEGEL: Robert Costa, you and your colleagues at The Washington Post put together a very detailed account of how Trump decided to fire Comey. It squares with some of what Trump told NBC News today. You reported also, though, that Trump was very, very angry at Comey. What was he angry about. How much of it was the Russian meddling investigation?
COSTA: The tipping point came last week when the then-FBI director went to Capitol Hill. Trump, in the words of some of his confidants, thought Comey sounded strange, was bringing up Russia too much. So there was a Russia aspect to this. The president believes the investigation has gone too far. Too much attention is being paid to that issue. And in the course of our reporting, we learned that the president himself has asked the FBI and Comey at different times to not pay as much attention to Russia but to pay more attention to the leaks, the leaks that are coming out of the federal government and the White House, a suggestion the FBI has pushed back on because if they're not leaking classified information, it doesn't necessarily constitute a potential crime.
This culminated over the weekend when the president was in New Jersey at his golf course, relaxing, doing some work, and he decided to fire Comey. He comes to the White House on Monday, and he says to Attorney General Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, I'm moving in this direction; what's your critique of the FBI? And it moved very quickly from there.
SIEGEL: And so the Rosenstein memorandum that followed was written before that meeting or was written after that meeting.
COSTA: In recent weeks, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, based on my reporting, has been carefully reviewing the FBI not with the intent of removing Comey or giving an excuse to the president to remove Comey. But he has been studying the leadership of the FBI now that he's in this new position at the Justice Department.
He came to the meeting at the Oval Office on Monday with the attorney general. They discussed the FBI, and the president said to Sessions and Rosenstein, please put this review - please put these recommendations into writing. Those letters arrived, and the memorandum arrived on Tuesday. And the president made the decision really only consulting Rosenstein and Sessions as well as Don McGahn, the White House counsel, and a few key staffers like Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, senior-level officials at the White House.
SIEGEL: Mara, you - this isn't your first White House that you've covered. I mean you said this all happened so quickly that the White House press office was left behind. What does this say about this White House and how it's run?
LIASSON: Well, look; this is a White House that, like all White Houses, are really driven by the president, by the president's concerns and his personality and, in this case, by his grievances and the things that bug him. And he clearly saw the Russian investigation not so much as being about a national security threat to the U.S. but as something about him. And as Robert said, he wanted the FBI to focus on leaks, not potential collusion between his campaign and the Russia. He would have - Russians - he would have rather had an investigation of his unsupported allegation that President Obama wiretapped him.
And you know, I have been talking to a lot of people about this, and the adjectives that I've heard about how this White House operates, especially in this instance, were sloppy, ragged, unpredictable, undisciplined. And that's just from Republicans.
LIASSON: And you know, today Sarah Sanders told all of us reporters at the White House - she said, don't get so lost in the process.
LIASSON: And maybe if the White House had paid more attention to process, they wouldn't have had this incredible backlash. This isn't the first example of handling something like this, but it is certainly the most egregious one in the last 100-plus days.
SIEGEL: Robert Costa, I want to ask you more about Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who was on Capitol Hill today. He's in the very peculiar position right now of having been cited publicly as the key opinion here that justified Comey's dismissal. And now the president says actually he would have done the same thing regardless of what the recommendation was. What's he saying or doing these days?
COSTA: This is perhaps the most intriguing part of the story today. I've spoken to associates of Rosenstein. So have my colleagues at The Washington Post. And what we've learned is this. Rosenstein certainly has concerns about Comey, and he - that he has acknowledged to everyone privately in recent discussions.
However, he feels very unhappy with the way the White House brought him to the Oval Office to discuss Comey, asked him for a memorandum and then cited that memorandum as the reason for the president to move forward even though the president today acknowledged to NBC News that he had already decided over the weekend while at Bedminster, if not before that, to get rid of Comey. And then you had the White House, in terms of its official and aides, speaking out after the decision was made, citing this memorandum that the president asked him to write as the reason.
COSTA: And Rosenstein, who so values his credibility and his reputation, feels wronged. Though he's not speaking out publicly at least yet.
SIEGEL: Well, I want to move on to another issue, which was that there was a hearing today in the Senate intelligence committee. And one of the people testifying is the acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe. Here's an exchange between Senator Angus King of Maine and McCabe. King asked McCabe about the investigation into Russian meddling in last year's election.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ANGUS KING: Yesterday, a White House press spokesman said that this is one of the smallest things on the plate of the FBI. Is that an accurate statement?
ANDREW MCCABE: It...
KING: Is this a small investigation in relation to all the other work that you're doing?
MCCABE: Sir, we consider it to be a highly significant investigation.
KING: So you would not characterize it as one of the smallest things you're engaged in.
MCCABE: I would not.
SIEGEL: So there was McCabe disputing a White House appraisal of how big a deal this is. He also said that despite White House claims that Comey had lost the respect of the FBI rank and file, he's actually very popular among agency employees - Mara, another seemingly credible figure, a career FBI guy, at odds with the White House version of events.
LIASSON: Yes, at odds with the White House version of events. Sarah Sanders today - she said she had spoken to countless FBI agents who were happy that Comey was fired. That was almost exactly the opposite of what we heard from McCain, who said - McCabe, who said he has a very strong connection. He had tremendous support. They hadn't lost confidence of him.
You know, Republicans have had a really interesting reaction to Trump's handling of this whole episode. They're not really criticizing him for firing Comey. What they're criticizing him for is his handling about it and the timing. And you know, today we heard Senator Burr, who's the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, push back on Trump's assessment of Comey...
LIASSON: ...As a showboater. He said, no, he was the - one of the most ethical, upright individuals I've ever met.
SIEGEL: Robert Costa, Donald Trump is taking some hits in the polls. Does this threaten to weaken his standing with Republicans in Congress and his ability to enact anything?
COSTA: I'm speaking to you here from the Capitol. In talking to lawmakers today, I'm really watching in real time Republicans fall in line publicly behind President Trump. You see Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan not fighting the president's decision to get rid of James Comey.
At the same time, it must be noted that when I pull a lot of these Republican senators and House members aside for a private conversation, the recorder in my pocket, not out in front of their face, they start to confide that actually they have some real problems with the way the White House has handled this, the fast-moving way the decision was made, and they also feel like they've been cornered in a bit by the decision, not having a way to explain it, not knowing the full context of the president's thinking.
SIEGEL: And Speaker Ryan did take a day before coming to the president's defense.
COSTA: He did. He's been out in Ohio speaking about tax reform. There is a disconnect at times between congressional Republicans who control both chambers and this Trump White House. They're part of the same party, but it's really the mainstream Republican Party here on Capitol Hill and the Trump Republican Party over on Pennsylvania Avenue. Sometimes they align. Sometimes they don't.
SIEGEL: That's The Washington Post's Robert Costa and also NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks to both of you.
LIASSON: Thank you.
COSTA: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF STROBO'S "POP GUIANA")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.