Why did President Donald Trump fire FBI Director James Comey? The president and top administration officials have offered contradictory accounts in recent days:
- The official White House statement on May 9 said Trump “acted based on the clear recommendations” of the attorney general and deputy attorney general. But Trump, in an interview two days later, said he was going to fire Comey “regardless of recommendation.”
- Trump said the “FBI has been in turmoil,” and a White House spokeswoman said “the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence” in Comey. “That is not accurate,” according to Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who said Comey “enjoyed broad support within the FBI, and still does to this day.”
The Rosenstein Memo
Trump fired Comey on May 9. The White House issued a statement saying, “President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”
Rosenstein wrote a two-and-a-half page memo with the subject line “Restoring Public Confidence in the FBI” that stated the reasons why Comey should be removed. The memo cited Comey’s “handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary [Hillary] Clinton’s emails.” Rosenstein criticized Comey for holding a press conference on July 5, 2016, to publicly announce his recommendation not to charge Clinton, and for announcing on Oct. 28, 2016, that the FBI had reopened its investigation of Clinton.
Comey’s firing came less than two months after the director confirmed at a congressional hearing on March 20 that the bureau is investigating “whether there was any coordination between the [Trump] campaign and Russia’s efforts” to influence the 2016 presidential election.
In January, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified intelligence report that found “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election” with the goal of hurting Clinton and helping to elect Trump.
Democrats have criticized the timing of Comey’s firing, because of the ongoing investigation. But Trump administration officials said the decision had nothing to do with Russia.
On the night of Comey’s firing, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway, “Why fire James Comey now?” She cited Rosenstein’s letter and his bipartisan credentials, noting that he was overwhelmingly confirmed as deputy attorney general.
Conway, May 9: Well, I would point them to the three letters that were received today, Anderson, the letter by President Donald Trump and letter by Attorney General Sessions and really the underlying report by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who the FBI director reports to, the FBI director traditionally reports to the deputy attorney general. Rod Rosenstein was confirmed just 14 days ago by a vote of 94 to 6 by United States senators. He’s well-respected across both sides of the aisle. He served as U.S. attorney in Maryland under President Obama. And he sent out a memo today to the attorney general and the re line, Anderson, says “restoring public confidence in the FBI.”
Conway said Trump “took the recommendation of his deputy attorney general, who oversees the FBI director.”
Later in the interview, Cooper said that “a lot of people are … saying it destroys people’s confidence in the FBI” and its ability to investigate whether Trump aides colluded with Russia to interfere in last year’s election. Conway said the firing “had zero to do” with Russia and “everything to do with … Mr. Rosenstein.”
The next morning, on CNN’s “New Day,” Conway repeated the claim: “The president took the advice of the deputy attorney general who oversees the director of the FBI, brought those concerns to the attorney general who brought them to the president. And they made a decision to remove him.”
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that same morning, White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed the official White House statement and Conway’s remarks when she was asked why Comey was fired.
Sanders, May 10: I think he’s heard from the rank and file of the FBI, but particularly someone who had done a thorough review and someone who has the respect and reputation that the deputy attorney general has, he took that seriously. He took the recommendation seriously. And he made a decision based on that.
Trump, however, told NBC’s Lester Holt in a May 11 interview that he did not base his decision on Rosenstein’s recommendation.
Holt, May 11: Monday you met with the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Holt: Did you ask for a recommendation?
Trump: What I did is, I was going to fire Comey. My decision. It was not —
Holt: You had made the decision before they came in the room.
Trump: I was going to fire Comey. There’s no good time to do it, by the way.
Holt: Because in your letter you said, “I accepted their recommendation.”
Trump: Well, they also —
Holt: So, you had already made the decision.
Trump: Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.
Update, May 12: After we posted our story, NBC News posted the full interview with Trump. The president said that he thought about “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia” when he decided to fire Comey.
“[Rosenstein] made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it,” Trump said. “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. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’”
The president also told Holt, “The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.”
Comey’s ‘Broad Support’ Within FBI
Trump and others in the administration have repeatedly made the claim that Comey had lost the confidence and respect of the FBI’s rank and file.
In addition to Trump saying the FBI has been in “turmoil,” Conway on CNN’s “New Day” said that “Jim Comey had lost the confidence of people at the FBI.”
At a May 10 press briefing, Sanders said the president, members of Congress and the Department of Justice had lost confidence in Comey. “And most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director,” Sanders said.
McCabe — a 21-year FBI official who assumed the position of acting FBI director when Comey was fired — was asked about Sanders’ remark at a May 11 hearing of the Senate intelligence committee. “No, sir, that is not accurate,” he said.
McCabe called working with Comey “the greatest privilege and honor of my professional life.”
McCabe, May 11: I can tell you also that Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI, and still does to this day. We are a large organization. We are 36,500 people across this country, across this globe. We have a diversity of opinions about many things. But I can confidently tell you that the majority — the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey.
A day earlier, former FBI Deputy General Counsel Ernie Babcock told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Comey “created an atmosphere of integrity and transparency, and, unfortunately, being transparent is now becoming a political football and one side or the other will not be happy if you actually do your job.”
Tapper, May 10: How was morale at the FBI under Comey when you were there?
Babcock: It was outstanding. Jim Comey is an inclusive leader. He would not make and did not make critical decisions on his own as some other leaders do. He brought the senior staff together on a regular basis and included them in making any of the difficult decisions.
This is obviously a developing story and more information likely will emerge.
But what we know right now is that the White House’s initial claim that the president acted based on Rosenstein’s recommendation has been contradicted by the president himself. And its portrayal of Comey as having lost the confidence of the FBI rank and file is at best a matter of dispute.