Last night President Trump tweeted:
I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt.
The president, presumably, was referring to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who did, indeed, recommend that James Comey be fired. But Rosenstein isn’t investigating Trump. Special counsel Robert Mueller is. If Mueller recommended that Trump fire his friend Comey, that would be a scoop.
Moreover, it’s not clear that anyone is investigating Trump for firing Comey. Rosenstein invites us to be skeptical about leaks suggesting that Trump is under investigation for obstruction of justice. I decline Rosenstein’s invitation. However, I don’t think an investigation of obstruction of justice would amount to an investigation for firing the FBI director. It would center, rather, on what Trump may have told Comey to do or not do in the course of his investigation.
Finally, the thrust of Trump’s tweet is misleading. Rosenstein recommended that Comey be fired for his handling of the Clinton email investigation. But Trump fired Comey for his handling of the Russia investigation. If he’s in hot water over the firing, it’s not because of what Rosenstein told him regarding Comey.
The second sentence of Trump’s tweet — the allegation of a “witch hunt” — is fair, I think. But disgust over the way Trump is being treated shouldn’t obscure the extent to which Trump’s errors have placed him in jeopardy.
Not firing Comey immediately upon taking office — while the Democrats were still demonizing him and before Comey could build a paper trail — was a mistake. As I pointed out at the time, Comey had been a thorn in the side of the two previous administrations. How could Trump that he — a far less congenial personality in the eyes of an insider like Comey — would be exempt from the sting of the self-righteous FBI director?
Clearing the room and expressing his “hope” that Comey would go easy on his friend Michael Flynn was a huge mistake. Indeed, having any conversation with Comey, absent witnesses or a recording device, would be an error.
The firing of Comey after everything that had transpired arguably compounded the mistake of not firing him earlier. In any event, Trump grossly mishandled the firing.
Either he should have relied on the reasoning of the Rosenstein memo or he should not have put the memo out there. By publishing, but ultimately not relying on, the memo Trump did two things. First, he undermined his own credibility. Second, he undermined Rosenstein’s position.
The undermining of Rosenstein and the attacks on the Deputy Attorney General that ensued are probably what led him to appoint a “special counsel.” From Trump’s perspective, and the country’s (in my view), this was the biggest mistake of all.
Trump didn’t make it, but he brought it on.
UPDATE: President Trump also mishandled the Comey firing by the manner in which he accomplished it. Apparently, the director found out about the sacking via the news while he was on the road.
Comey presumably was enraged by how Trump handled the discharge. However, there is no reason to believe that he wouldn’t be trying to stick it to Trump even if things had been handled more humanely. In all likelihood, the sacking itself was enough to trigger Comey’s reaction.