Between two bushes: The Trump White House botched the James Comey firing in almost every way possible

From Sean Spicer's moonlight presser to the clueless timing and illogical arguments, the ineptitude is dazzling

By Matthew Sheffield
Published May 11, 2017 8:58AM (EDT)
James Comey; Donald Trump   (AP/Jose Luis Magana/Getty/Don Emmert/Salon)
James Comey; Donald Trump (AP/Jose Luis Magana/Getty/Don Emmert/Salon)

Even assuming President Donald Trump has nothing to hide vis-à-vis Russia, the incompetence that the White House evinced in carrying out and defending the firing of FBI Director James Comey is so stunning that it must be remarked upon in and of itself.

The decision appears to have been arrived at impetuously. The subsequent theater of the absurd that high-level administration staffers engaged in to defend it makes that conclusion almost undeniable.

The follies began on Tuesday afternoon as the White House dispatched someone to hand-deliver Comey's termination notice to the director's Washington office, while he was actually in California on official business. The FBI chief learned of his sacking only when he accidentally caught wind of the news on television. At first, he reportedly believed it was a joke.

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Alongside the administration's press release announcing that Trump was firing Comey, the Trump team released a memo that same day from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. That memo cited Comey’s conduct during the FBI’s investigation of the private email server operated by Hillary Clinton during her tenure as secretary of state as the reason that Comey should be removed.

If that were truly the reason for Comey’s firing, a competent administration would have immediately leaked Rosenstein's memorandum and then a few days later given him the task of publicly announcing the decision.

That isn’t what happened, however. And the reasons it didn’t suggest that the Clinton email investigation was not the true reason for Comey’s sacking.

Many Democratic politicians and former law enforcement officials had strongly condemned Comey for holding a news conference and lambasting Clinton, even as he said he would not recommend her being charged for violating public records laws. Democrats were further incensed at Comey after he again drew attention to himself shortly before last year’s presidential election, when he told Congress in a letter that soon became public that the FBI had found thousands of potentially relevant emails on a computer belonging to the husband of Clinton’s closest adviser.

While Comey also announced that the agency was not going to reopen its investigation a few days before the election, Clinton partisans nonetheless held his highly unorthodox behavior against him; some, including the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, said they no longer had confidence in Comey’s judgment and professionalism.

Removing Comey for his conduct in regard to the Clinton investigation is a justified position, at least in principle. Yet the termination letter that Trump sent to Comey belies that this was the real reason for his firing.

“I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation,” Trump’s missive says, apropos of nothing. Presumably that refers to the FBI’s current probe into the widely known efforts of hackers linked to the Russian government to steal email data from high-level Democratic campaign staffers. The investigation has been a constant source of irritation for the president; he appears to have asked Comey to publicly announce that the agency had found no evidence that Trump or his high-level staff had any sort of connection to the Russian cyber-espionage. Comey has never done so.

Once the word of Comey’s ouster was presented to the public, Trump’s action was immediately compared to former President Richard Nixon’s firing of Archibald Cox, the independent prosecutor who was assigned to investigate the burgeoning Watergate scandal, in the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” of October 1973.

Incredibly, the Trump White House seems to have been shocked at this response.

After he had fired Comey, Trump began calling various elected officials, one of whom was Schumer. According to an anonymous source cited by Politico, the president was “taken aback” when the Democratic leader told him that sacking Comey was a big mistake.

White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders inadvertently confirmed this surprise on Wednesday afternoon, when she was asked if Trump had expected the Democratic backlash to the Comey firing. “How could he have, considering the fact that most of the people declaring war today were the very ones that were begging for Director Comey to be fired?” she replied.

The administration continued flat-footedly in its response as chief press secretary Sean Spicer literally huddled with his staff members behind some hedges in the White House drive in order to avoid reporters, a surreal moment that blurred the line between the real Spicer and Melissa McCarthy's “Saturday Night Live” impersonation of him.

Finally, Spicer relented to answer journalists’ questions, but only in the dark — so that he could not be filmed, according to the The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson. This was just minutes after Spicer had announced Comey's firing by shouting down the hallway to whichever reporters happened to be gathered in the White House press room.

“Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off,” he told the White House grounds staff. “We'll take care of this. . . . Can you just turn that light off?”

The episode was a metaphor for the Trump administration at large, which has yet to fill about 80 percent of the top political appointee positions that it is required to under American law; meanwhile, the administration has proved adept at bullying journalists who dare to ask questions.

In his so-called press conference, Spicer continually referred reporters to the Department of Justice. His counterpart, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, did little more in Tuesday night interviews; she seemed incapable of anything beyond robotically reciting a passage from Rosenstein’s letter about “restoring public confidence in the FBI.”

When asked repeatedly by CNN host Anderson Cooper about how Trump could claim the FBI was facing a crisis of trust today after having repeatedly made proclamations of his confidence in Comey, Conway offered only absurd filibustering.

“So that person doesn’t exist anymore, candidate Donald Trump; that’s a fictional character we no longer are allowed to refer to? We can now only refer to the Donald Trump who exists today?” Cooper asked.

“Anderson, I’ll ignore how unkind that is,” Conway replied. “And all I’ll say is that as president of the United States, he needs confidence in his FBI director and he doesn’t have it.”

After claiming throughout Tuesday evening that Comey was fired purely on Rosenstein’s recommendation, the White House reversed course on Wednesday, as Sanders proclaimed that Trump had wanted to remove Comey “from the day he was elected” in light of the “basic atrocities” the FBI chief had supposedly committed during the Clinton server investigation.

Sanders also contradicted a statement she had made on Tuesday night during an interview with Fox News when she asked for an end to congressional and law enforcement inquiries into possible Trump ties to the Russian email hacking. “It’s been going on for nearly a year,” the deputy press secretary told host Tucker Carlson, adding that it was time for the government to “move on” and “focus on the things the American people care about.” On Wednesday Sanders encouraged investigators to do what they deem “appropriate and see fit.”

In the Politico account cited above, Trump was said to have believed that removing Comey would allow his Russian influence scandal to begin to die down. The administration’s staggering incompetence in firing the FBI director the day before the president was scheduled to meet with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. can only ensure the opposite result.

Matthew Sheffield

A writer, web developer, and former tv producer, Matthew Sheffield covers politics, media, and technology for Salon. You can email him via or follow him on Twitter.

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