Last night, I noted what I thought was Team Trump’s change of tune on the Comey firing. Originally portrayed as a “bottom-up” decision triggered by the new Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, the administration later acknowledged the president’s role, saying that he was furious with Comey’s investigation and had been considering sacking the director before receiving Rosenstein’s memo.
This report in the Wall Street Journal, if accurate, helps explain the change:
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein pressed White House counsel Don McGahn to correct what he felt was an inaccurate White House depiction of the events surrounding FBI Director James Comey’s firing, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
Mr. Rosenstein left the impression that he couldn’t work in an environment where facts weren’t accurately reported, the person said. The deputy attorney general objected to statements by White House aides citing Mr. Rosenstein’s critical assessment of Mr.Comey’s job performance to justify the firing.
According to the WSJ report:
Rosenstein, who had been confirmed by the Senate just two weeks earlier, met with Mr. Trump on Monday, where they discussed Mr. Comey’s job performance. At the White House’s prompting, Mr. Rosenstein Tuesday wrote a memo to the president detailing his concerns about the director’s conduct.
The letter does not recommend that Comey be fired. However, it was highly critical of Comey, concluding that the FBI had lost the public’s trust and that “the director cannot be expected to implement corrective action.”
It would make perfect sense for a chief executive receiving such a report to fire the official in question.
But that doesn’t preclude the possibility that the chief executive, in this case President Trump, fired the official, in this case Comey, for other reasons. It does not mean that Trump fired Comey in response to Rosenstein’s letter.
According to the Journal, Rosenstein doesn’t believe that the decision to fire Comey was the result of his recommendation. He thus objected to statements to the media by Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Vice President Pence that the letter triggered, or explains, the discharge.
Therefore, according to the Journal, Rosenstein called McGahn and urged that the White House correct the record. After that, at a Wednesday afternoon news briefing, Sanders “started to shift the White House narrative.”
Asked about the tipping point in Mr. Trump’s decision to dismiss Mr. Comey, she responded: “He’d lost confidence in Director Comey, and, frankly, he’d been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected.”…
Later that evening, the White House circulated a timeline of events leading up to Mr. Comey’s dismissal that had been authored by the Justice Department. The timeline didn’t mention Mr. Rosenstein’s letter until the fourth bullet point, and said Mr. Trump had been “strongly inclined” to remove Mr. Comey after watching his testimony in front of a Senate panel last week.
Subsequently, administration officials said Mr. Trump had been growing increasingly frustrated by the former director’s demonstrative performances in a series of congressional hearings, combined with his refusal to clear Mr. Trump’s campaign of any wrongdoing, put the president over the edge.
Eventually, the president himself acknowledged that Rosenstein’s letter was irrelevant. Today, as the Journal notes, he told NBC News, “Regardless of [the] recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”
Why, then, did the White House originally try to pin the firing on Rosenstein? Maybe it was incompetence; more likely it was misdirection.
Would the true version of what happened have come to light had Rosenstein not objected? I have little confidence that the White House would have corrected the record.
The one good thing to come out of this mess is that Rosenstein’s reputation for integrity remains unblemished. That reputation will stand the administration in good stead. It should make sure there is no repeat performance in which Rosenstein is used as he was here.