At several points in the Trump administration, I’ve been tempted to invoke a 24-hour rule: Don’t comment on anything done or said by (or about) him until 24 hours have passed, because the facts and circumstances almost always change within that timeframe. By as much as 180 degrees.
The current firestorm surrounding his firing of James Comey as FBI director is making me wonder if 24 hours is long enough.
Comey’s acting successor, Andrew McCabe, testified on Capitol Hill this morning. It turns out, a lot of what’s come out of the White House to defend Comey’s ouster, as well as from various news stories describing nefarious reasons behind the decision, fell apart as McCabe testified.
Let’s start with the anti-Trump reports. As we all “know” by now, Comey was fired after requesting more resources for the investigation into Russia and last year’s election. Right?
(A Justice Department spokesman has also denied that request as “totally false.”)
OK, but surely Comey’s firing is having a chilling effect on the investigation. Right?
Maybe at the level of individual agents, but could that possibly be true of FBI leaders like himself?
Well, if they did in the future, McCabe would have to feel pressured to keep that to himself. Right?
All in all, the narrative that the Trump White House sought to squelch the Russia probe by firing Comey took a big hit with McCabe’s testimony. But those weren’t the only talking points to suffer Thursday (via Politico):
“Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe on Thursday said his fired predecessor, James Comey, had not lost the confidence of rank-and-file FBI agents, contradicting a claim by the White House.
“‘Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day,’ McCabe said at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
“White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday said the president, Justice Department and Congress had all lost confidence in Comey. ‘Most importantly,’ she added, ‘the rank-and-file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director.’
“McCabe told senators he did not agree with that characterization, adding that it ‘has been the greatest privilege and honor of my professional life to work with him.’
“He also rebuked Sanders in her description of the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. On Wednesday, Sanders called the probe ‘probably one of the smallest things that they’ve got going on their plate.’
“McCabe on Thursday said the FBI considers the Russia probe ‘a highly significant investigation.'”
About the only claim by the administration that McCabe didn’t shoot down was the president’s assertion that the director had assured him “on three separate occasions” he was not the subject of an investigation; McCabe said he couldn’t comment on conversations Trump and Comey might have had (more on that in a moment). McCabe also conceded that some agents had voiced their displeasure with how the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information while secretary of state had ended:
But wait, there’s more. Just as I was wrapping up this post, Trump sat down for an interview with NBC News. Among the things he said:
That second one is a doozy, because it contradicts a key message coming from the White House the past couple of days: that Trump fired Comey after receiving the deputy AG’s letter outlining how Comey had mishandled the Clinton investigation (leading to a whole different thread of 1) reports the deputy AG, Rod Rosenstein, threatened to quit because of the way the White House was portraying his memo, and 2) Rosenstein denying the same). It does leave open the possibility the White House commissioned the Rosenstein memo to justify what Trump was already determined to do, but that doesn’t look much better.
The third one also is worth a few moments. Consider first just how disheartening it is that the president of the United States needed to ask such a question in the first place. Next, consider what Comey might have meant — assuming Trump is being truthful about their exchange. I haven’t spent much time covering the justice system, but from the experience I do have, it’s my understanding a person may not be the subject of an investigation … right up until the moment he is. In other words, these things sometimes change as the facts collected change. That’s not to say Trump certainly will be the subject, or a subject, in the Russia investigation, or another inquiry, as time goes on. But neither can we say he certainly won’t be, even if that was true on those occasions when he and Comey spoke.
Where does all this leave us? Here are a few possibilities:
- Trump really did fire Comey for justifiable reasons, and the impact that might have on the Russia investigation is an unfortunate side effect that the agency and Congress need to manage, preferably under the leadership of a new, respected, independent FBI director.
- Trump hoped firing Comey would be enough to slow or shut down the Russia investigation, but won’t go further than that.
- Trump is intent on obstructing the Russia investigation, and Comey’s firing is just the first step.
I’m sure you can think of others. Here’s the point: We don’t yet have a lot of solid information with which to judge the president’s action — in support or opposition. To the extent people are exonerating Trump or indicting him, they’re mostly just reflecting their previous opinions of him. I realize we live in a world where people expect not just instant information in these kinds of stories but instant judgment on them, but sometimes that’s just not possible.