After the president fired James Comey, the cloud hanging over the White House just got bigger and darker.
• Donald Trump has surrounded himself with sycophants and amateurs who are either unwilling or unable to tell him no. He lacks a David-Gergen-like figure who is wise to the ways of Washington and has the stature to speak up when the president says he wants to fire an FBI director who is overseeing the counterintelligence investigation into whether his associates coordinated with Moscow. Without such a person, Trump just walked headlong into a political buzz saw.
• Senior officials at the White House were caught off guard by the intense and immediate blowback to the president's stunning decision to fire James Comey. They reportedly expected Republicans to back him up and thought Democrats wouldn't complain loudly because they have been critical of Comey for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Indeed, that was the dubious excuse given publicly for his ouster.
But as all three cable news channels showed live footage of Comey's motorcade winding through Los Angeles traffic en route to the private plane that would bring him home to Washington, the West Wing shifted into damage control mode.
• Washington Post reporter Jenna Johnson, who was at the White House Tuesday night, filed a colorful dispatch that captures the chaotic and dysfunctional rollout: "Sean Spicer wrapped up his brief interview with Fox Business from the White House grounds late Tuesday night and then disappeared into the shadows, huddling with his staff behind a tall hedge. To get back to his office, Spicer would have to pass a swarm of reporters wanting to know why President Trump suddenly decided to fire the FBI director. For more than three hours, Spicer and his staff had been scrambling to answer that question. Spicer had wanted to drop the bombshell news in an emailed statement but it was not transmitting quickly enough, so he ended up standing in the doorway of the press office around 5:40 p.m. and shouting a statement to reporters who happened to be nearby. He then vanished, with his staff locking the door leading to his office. The press staff said that Spicer might do a briefing, then announced that he definitely wouldn't say anything more that night. But as Democrats and Republicans began to criticize and question the firing . . . Spicer and two prominent spokeswomen were suddenly speed-walking up the White House drive to defend the president on CNN, Fox News and Fox Business. . .
"After Spicer spent several minutes hidden in the bushes behind these sets, Janet Montesi, an executive assistant in the press office, emerged and told reporters that Spicer would answer some questions, as long as he was not filmed doing so. Spicer then emerged. 'Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,' he ordered. . . . Spicer got his wish and was soon standing in near darkness between two tall hedges, with more than a dozen reporters closely gathered around him. For 10 minutes, he responded to a flurry of questions, vacillating between light-hearted asides and clear frustration with getting the same questions over and over again.
"As Spicer tells it, (Deputy Attorney General Rod) Rosenstein was confirmed about two weeks ago and independently took on this issue so the president was not aware of the probe until he received a memo from Rosenstein on Tuesday, along with a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommending that Comey be fired. The president then swiftly decided to follow the recommendation, notifying the FBI via e-mail around 5 p.m. and in a letter delivered to the FBI by the president's longtime bodyguard. 'It was all him,' Spicer said of Rosenstein." (No serious person believes this.)
Spicer then ducked a series of obvious follow-up questions: Was Sessions involved? "That's something you should ask the Department of Justice," Spicer said. Was Rosenstein's probe part of a larger review of the FBI? "That's, again, a question that you should ask the Department of Justice," he said. Did the president discuss Rosenstein's findings with Rosenstein? "No, I don't believe, I don't know how that sequence went - I don't know," he said. What was the president's role? "Again, I have to get back to you on the tick-tock," he said. When's the last time Trump and Comey spoke? "Uh, I don't know. I don't know. There's some — I don't know. I don't know," he said. What were the three occasions on which the president says Comey assured him that he was not under investigation? "I don't — we can follow — I can try, yeah," he said.
"As Spicer made his way toward the White House door, the swarm of reporters moved with him, shouting questions along the way," Johnson concludes. "Spicer walked with his head down. . . . As he approached the door, aides warned reporters not to get too close."
• To put it mildly, the optics of firing Comey are terrible. Trump looks like he does not actually want to get to the bottom of Russia's interference in the U.S. election and the potential wrongdoing of his own staffers.
In one of the hastily arranged damage-control interviews, deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made an especially revealing statement that underscored why so many people are worried. Asked by Tucker Carlson on Fox News how Comey's termination will impact the Russia investigation, she replied: "I think the bigger point on that is, 'My gosh, Tucker, when are they gonna let that go?' It's been going on for nearly a year. Frankly, it's kinda getting absurd. There's nothing there." "It's time to move on," she added. "Frankly, it's time to focus on the things the American people care about."
As Sanders pretended on Fox that the Russian probes have found nothing, CNN reported that federal prosecutors — as part of the ongoing Russia probe — have now issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. "The subpoenas represent the first sign of a significant escalation of activity in the FBI's broader investigation that began last July into possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia," Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz and Pamela Brown reported. "The subpoenas issued in recent weeks by the US Attorney's Office in Alexandria, Virginia, were received by associates who worked with Flynn on contracts after he was forced out as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014."
It emerged Tuesday that Senate investigators have asked the Treasury Department's criminal investigation division for any relevant financial information related to Trump, his top officials, or his campaign aides. "We've made a request, to FinCEN in the Treasury Department, to make sure, not just for example vis-a-vis the President, but just overall our effort to try to follow the intel no matter where it leads," said Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, per CNN. FinCEN is the federal agency that has been investigating allegations of foreign money-laundering through purchases of U.S. real estate. "You get materials that show if there have been, what level of financial ties between, I mean some of the stuff, some of the Trump-related officials, Trump campaign-related officials and other officials and where those dollars flow — not necessarily from Russia." Until the Treasury Department responds with documents, Warner said, he plans to withhold support for Trump's nominees.
Trump has also hired a Washington law firm to send a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee denying that he has connections to Russia, Spicer told reporters a few hours before the Comey news broke. He was responding to an announcement by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., .S.C.) that he planned to look into that issue.
• Trump doesn't grasp it yet, but firing Comey will only lead to more, and louder, questions about Russia, as well as what exactly Trump knew about Flynn and when he knew it. Sometimes it turns out that the simplest explanation is the correct one. Is it possible that the president kept his national security adviser in the White House for 18 days after he'd been warned by the acting attorney general that he had been "compromised" and was vulnerable to "blackmail" by Russia because he had authorized the conversations in question?
"The Comey putsch heightens the mystery at the center of the Flynn case," David Ignatius, who first broke the news of Flynn's conversations with the Russian ambassador, writes in a Washington Post column. "Trump has been digging a hole for himself from the beginning on Russia-related issues. It's an odd pattern of behavior. Trump may have done nothing improper involving Russia, but why does he act so defensive? In a book called 'Spy the Lie,' a group of former intelligence officers explain the behavioral and linguistic cues that indicate when someone is being deceptive. Interestingly, many of these are evident in Trump's responses to questions about Russia's covert involvement in U.S. politics. The authors' list of tip-offs includes 'going into attack mode,' 'inappropriate questions,' 'inconsistent statements,' 'selective memory' and the use of 'qualifiers,' such as 'frankly,' 'honestly' and 'truthfully.' The authors' point is that people who are innocent answer questions simply and directly."
• Our Justice Department beat reporters relay that Comey's removal has also sparked fears inside the FBI that the Russia investigation might be upended. Trump, after all, will get to handpick the new supervisor of a probe into possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. "The investigation is still in its infancy, but the probe's sensitive subject matter has already created a political quagmire for the Justice Department," Ellen Nakashima and Matt Zapotosky report. "A number of current and former officials said that the FBI special agents and National Security Division attorneys who are conducting the Russia probe will continue the investigation. The probe, though, might slow down in the short term. Comey's successor will undeniably play a major role. 'No big-time decisions will be made until they appoint a new FBI director,' said one former federal prosecutor. 'It's just a big thing. The FBI will make a recommendation to the Justice Department as to whether or not to go forward, and you're going to want an FBI director to make that kind of decision, I would think.' Inside the bureau, agents said that there was shock at the news of Comey's dismissal and hope that it would not disrupt the Russia investigation."
• A handful of important Senate REPUBLICANS who have been defending the president went public Tuesday night with concerns. Here are five examples:
Richard Burr (R., N.C.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee: "I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey's termination. I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee."
James Lankford (R., Okla.), a member of the Intelligence and Homeland Security committees: "The issues that our law enforcement, intelligence community and congressional committees deal with each day are very sensitive and have life or death implications. Director Comey has been the public face representing thousands of committed law enforcement officers and civil servants within the intelligence community. In the days ahead, the American people need clarity and deserve an explanation for his immediate firing."
Ben Sasse (R., Neb.), chairman of the Judiciary Oversight Subcommittee: "Regardless of how you think Director Comey handled the unprecedented complexities of the 2016 election cycle, the timing of this firing is very troubling. Jim Comey is an honorable public servant, and in the midst of a crisis of public trust that goes well beyond who you voted for in the presidential election, the loss of an honorable public servant is a loss for the nation. . . . I have reached out to the Deputy Attorney General for clarity on his rationale for recommending this action."
Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Comey's firing will "raise questions": "While the case for removal . . . was thorough, his removal at this particular time will raise questions. It is essential that ongoing investigations are fulsome and free of political interference until their completion, and it is imperative that President Trump nominate a well-respected and qualified individual to lead the bureau at this critical time."
John McCain (R., Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he was "disappointed" in Trump's decision and repeated his call for a special congressional committee to probe the matter.
• Watch for Republicans who could be vulnerable in 2018 to become more inclined to distance themselves from Trump going forward. Arizona's Jeff Flake is up for reelection next year:
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R., Va.), another vulnerable incumbent in the D.C. suburbs, called for an independent investigation: "Both Democrats and Republicans attacked the FBI Director at various times for various reasons and called for his ouster. However, I can't defend or explain tonight's actionsor timing . . . The FBI investigation into the Russian impact on the 2016 election must continue. There must be an independent investigation that the American people can trust." (Another reason this is a big deal: Comstock was in charge of public affairs at the Justice Department when John Ashcroft was attorney general.)
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R., Fla.), who represents a Miami-area district that Clinton carried, is also one of the most endangered GOP lawmakers next year:
• Intellectually honest conservative thought leaders are also alarmed:
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a key policy adviser on the presidential campaigns of McCain, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio:
Columnist Charles Krauthammer: "To fire him summarily with no warning in the middle of May because of something that happened in July is almost inexplicable." Watch:
Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum in The Atlantic: "This Is Not a Drill. The firing of Comey poses a question: Will the law answer to the president, or the president to the law?"
• The timing is terrible for the White House in another way: A day after firing the FBI director overseeing the Russia probe, Trump has just one event on his public schedule today: An Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. "The sit-down between Trump and Lavrov, the first face-to-face contact the president has had with a senior official of the Russian government, will take place at 10:30 a.m. in the White House," The Washington Post's Philip Rucker and Karen DeYoung report. "It will be closed to the press. . . . Trump and Lavrov are . . . picking up on the conversation Trump had with Russian President Vladimir Putin via telephone on May 2. . . . Trump is expected to hold his first meeting with Putin in July, when both travel to Germany to a summit of the Group of 20 leading and developing world economies." Every one of these meetings will now look more suspect.
• The excuse given by the administration does not pass the smell test. The official line is that Comey was fired because senior Justice Department officials concluded that he had violated Justice Department principles and procedures last year by publicly discussing the investigation of Clinton's use of a private email server. Newly installed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote up a document to justify the move, which Sessions and Trump then signed off on.
"What's perhaps most notable about Rosenstein's letter is that it makes the case for Comey's ouster using a slew of newspaper quotes and op-eds from former law enforcement officials," Aaron Blake notes in the Post. "The letter doesn't actually add much to the public record or suggest extensive behind-the-scenes fact-gathering; it's basically a summary anyone could have written in an afternoon."
A former top Justice Department official who was quoted in the Rosenstein memo calls the justification a "sham." Donald Ayer, who was deputy attorney general under George H.W. Bush, said in an emailed statement: "At the time, Mr. Trump was supportive of the most incorrect things that Comey did — editorializing about the facts of the then-ended investigation and later announcing that the investigation had been reopened. The Deputy should realize that his correct assessment of those mistakes is now being used to justify firing for a very different reason."
• The real story: "Several current and former officials said the relationship between the White House and the FBI had been strained for months, in part because administration officials were pressuring Comey to more aggressively pursue leak investigations over disclosures that embarrassed the White House and raised questions about ties with Russia," Devlin Barrett, Adam Entous and Philip Rucker report. "Although the FBI is investigating disclosures of classified information, the bureau has resisted calls to prioritize leak investigations over the Russia matter, or probe matters that did not involve leaks of classified or otherwise sensitive information . . . A current official said administration figures have been 'very aggressive' in pressuring the FBI."
"Trump was rankled by FBI director's media attention" is the headline on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
"He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia,"Politico adds. "He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn't disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said."
• Comey learned he had been fired while addressing FBI employees in Los Angeles. "While Mr. Comey spoke, television screens in the background began flashing the news," the New York Times reports. "In response to the reports, Mr. Comey laughed, saying that he thought it was a fairly funny prank."
• Keep in mind: The classless way Trump axed Comey might contribute to a desire among some allies and supporters of the ex-director to leak additional damaging information about the president.
• Another significant repercussion: Every piece of Trump's agenda just became harder to get through Congress. Democrats will be less inclined than ever to work with this president, and the liberal base will become even less tolerant of red state incumbents collaborating with him. It's going to be really hard to get to 60 votes for anything Trump wants for a while. Whoever Trump nominates as Comey's replacement will face a brutal confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. It will get saturation-level media coverage.
• In the short-term, firing Comey will give fresh and significant momentum to Democratic calls for a special prosecutor. Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer asked all 48 of his members to gather in the Senate chamber at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday to join him in calling for an independent prosecutor.
Unless Congress passed legislation, which seems unlikely, Rosenstein (who wrote the letter to justify Comey's termination) would need to decide to appoint a special counsel. But the calls from the left are about to become deafening, and Rosenstein might bow to pressure to save the diminishing credibility of the Justice Department.
"Rosenstein has one chance to rehabilitate his reputation: He can name a special prosecutor to continue the probe. If he doesn't, the wave of rebellion against Trump so far will become a tsunami, and it will swamp Trump's protectors in the polls," Dana Milbank writes in his column. "This president may think himself unassailable, but Americans are seeing him for what he is: a tin-pot tyrant."
• Is Trump the New Nixon? Will this be remembered as the Tuesday Night Massacre? This episode ensures more comparisons of Trump to Richard Nixon, a politician he deeply admires. From Marc Fisher and Karen DeYoung's piece exploring the parallels:
John Dean, the White House counsel under Nixon, called Trump's firing of Comey "a very Nixonian move": "This could have been a quiet resignation, but instead it was an angry dismissal."