White House’s FBI story unravels

Key portions of the White House’s explanation of how President Trump decided to fire FBI Director James Comey came into question on Thursday, underlining a growing credibility crisis for the administration.

Remarkably, it was Trump himself who undercut statements from White House officials about the firing.

In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, the president said he had made up his mind about getting rid of Comey even before receiving a recommendation from Deputy Attorney General Ron Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOvernight Health Care: Thousands more migrant children may have been separated | Senate rejects bill to permanently ban federal funds for abortion | Women's March to lobby for 'Medicare for All' Acting AG Whitaker's wife defends him in lengthy email to journalist Watchdog: Thousands more migrant children separated from parents than previously known MORE.

“I was going to fire regardless of the recommendation,” Trump said.

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On Tuesday night, the White House had stressed that Trump decision to fire Comey came in response to a memo from Rosenstein that criticized the FBI director's handling of the probe into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of State. That memo was sent to Trump on Tuesday and stated that Comey had done “substantial damage” to the FBI’s credibility.

Since then, White House aides and Vice President Pence repeatedly said the president had acted on the recommendation of the Justice Department.

Trump’s comments Thursday sent aides scrambling to reconcile the conflicting storylines.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday had denied that Trump had already decided to fire Comey before meeting with Rosenstein and Sessions on Monday. 

Sanders on Thursday said she had made that statement without speaking to the president.

“I think it’s pretty simple. I hadn’t had a chance to have the conversation directly with the president,” Sanders said when asked to explain the discrepancies in the White House's account. “I went off the information I had.”

Sanders then accused Democrats of hypocrisy for protesting the firing of Comey, whom they criticized for his handling of the Clinton email probe. 

“If you want to talk about people in the dark, our story is consistent,” Sanders said. “The people that are in the dark today are the Democrats.”

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe directly contradicted the White House on two points related to Comey’s firing and the law enforcement agency’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election.

A day after the White House said Comey had “lost the confidence” of his employees, McCabe said Comey had a strong and positive relationship with the vast majority of FBI employees.

“Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day,” McCabe told senators on the Intelligence Committee.

“I can confidently tell you that the vast majority of employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey.”

Later, McCabe cast the story differently than the White House for a second time when Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingGOP senators challenge Trump on shutdown strategy Will Trump declare an emergency tonight? Only he knows for sure Senate in last-minute talks to find deal to avert shutdown  MORE (I-Maine) asked him about comments Sanders made Wednesday stating that the FBI’s Russia investigation is one of “the smallest things” the FBI has “going on their plate.”

“Sir, we consider it to be a highly significant investigation,” McCabe responded.

McCabe’s comments added to the White House’s problems in moving on from the Comey crisis, which has shaken some of its allies on Capitol Hill.

There have been new calls from Republicans for a special prosecutor to investigate possible links between Russia and members of Trump’s campaign, and several Republicans have expressed worry about, at a minimum, the timing of Comey’s dismissal.

Trump’s latest comments about the firing only added fuel to the fire, as Republican lawmakers urged the White House to provide a fuller explanation of what had happened.

“What it means to me is that’s a new story. That was different yesterday, and so I think it’s important of the confidence of the FBI, the confidence of the administration, to know what the scenario is that has changed over the last 24 hours, 48 hours,” said Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranOn The Money: Shutdown Day 26 | Pelosi calls on Trump to delay State of the Union | Cites 'security concerns' | DHS chief says they can handle security | Waters lays out agenda | Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions Overnight Defense: Trump faces blowback over report he discussed leaving NATO | Pentagon extends mission on border | Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions MORE (R-Kan.). “What really happened is important to know.”

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said the Rosenstein memo gave Trump a strong rationale for firing Comey because although it didn’t explicitly recommend his firing, it argued that the FBI couldn’t continue to operate under his leadership.

Rounds acknowledged, however, that the claim by White House officials that the president made his decision based on Rosenstein’s review conflicted with what Trump told NBC.

“I understand that that appears to an inconsistency in their stories,” he said.

He said that while Trump did necessarily justify the dismissal, things could have been handled better.

“It came as a surprise to us, the way that it happened. Certainly there was a question as to the coordination or the timing on it,” he said. “This White House is still learning.”

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal McConnell blocks bill to reopen most of government On The Money: Shutdown Day 27 | Trump fires back at Pelosi by canceling her foreign travel | Dems blast 'petty' move | Trump also cancels delegation to Davos | House votes to disapprove of Trump lifting Russia sanction MORE (R-S.C.), who supports Trump’s decision to replace Comey, nevertheless said the swerving White House narrative is causing problems.

“He has the absolute right to fire the FBI director for any reason, but the problem is the inconsistent reasons being offered, so you know I'm sure we'll get into that. What I want to know is what happened,” he said.  

During the interview, Trump doubled down on his argument that Comey had lost the FBI’s confidence, saying it had been in turmoil. He called Comey a “showboat” and a “grandstander” in a bit of public name-calling that risks alienating the FBI’s rank-and-file.

The chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee made it clear Thursday they disagreed with Trump’s assessment.

Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrManafort developments trigger new ‘collusion’ debate Three GOP Senate candidates, NRA may have illegally coordinated ads: report Cohen to testify publicly before Congress MORE (R-N.C.), who is leading the Senate’s investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election, called Comey one of the “most ethical, upright, straight-forward individuals I've had the opportunity to work with.”

A visibly agitated Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerDC train system losing 0k per day during government shutdown Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight Mobile providers at center of privacy storm MORE (Va.), the Democrat working with Burr on the investigation, rebuked the president for his statement.

“I thought [Comey] made some mistakes last fall, but I never called for his resignation. I thought he was a straight shooter, and frankly I'm offended with the president's comments today.”

Lawmakers in Washington are hungry for answers on the firing — with Democrats expressing outrage and some Republicans concerned about the abrupt decision.

On Wednesday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzTop Utah paper knocks Chaffetz as he mulls run for governor: ‘His political career should be over’ Boehner working on memoir: report Former GOP lawmaker on death of 7-year-old migrant girl: Message should be ‘don't make this journey, it will kill you' MORE (R-Utah) asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate the circumstances surrounding Trump’s move to fire Comey.

Jordain Carney contributed.