President Trump says a lot of things that aren’t true: that millions of illegal votes cost him the popular vote, that he saw thousands of Arabs in Jersey City cheering the 9/11 attacks, that President Obama tapped his phones in Trump Tower. Many people, including some of Trump’s supporters, have learned to doubt his claims. So Trump and his aides have figured out a way to shore up his credibility: quoting other, more trusted public figures. You can believe what Trump is saying, the argument goes, because some independent, well-respected official has confirmed it.
But there’s a problem with this solution: A man who says things that aren’t true is also likely to misrepresent statements that supposedly back him up. And that’s what we’re seeing now, as the White House tries to explain why Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.
On Tuesday, Trump released a letter in which he said he was firing Comey based on an attached memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The memo, dated Tuesday, argued that Comey had violated Justice Department protocol by treating Hillary Clinton unfairly. Every White House spokesperson, including Vice President Pence, attributed the idea of sacking Comey to Rosenstein. Counselor Kellyanne Conway hailed Rosenstein as a “nonpartisan figure” and quoted extensively from his memo. Press secretary Sean Spicer said, “It was all him.” Deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared, “When the president gets a recommendation from somebody like that, that is so well respected, he has no choice but to listen to him and to make a swift and decisive action.” Pence, when he was asked on Wednesday whether Trump had requested the memo, said that Rosenstein simply “brought that recommendation to the president,” and Trump acted on it.
These stories were false. Trump had solicited the memo in a meeting with Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday. And he had already decided, even before the meeting, that he would terminate the FBI director. Pressed by NBC’s Lester Holt in an interview on Thursday, Trump admitted: “Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.” Trump gave reasons for his decision—including disgust with inquiries into contacts between Russia and his associates—that were completely different from the reasons in Rosenstein’s memo. Rosenstein had been set up.
Rosenstein isn’t the only official whose words the White House has abused. On Wednesday, Pence was asked whether Trump fired Comey because of the FBI’s Russia investigation. The vice president dismissed this idea, claiming that James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, “said there is no evidence of collusion.” Trump extended that argument on Friday, tweeting that “James Clapper himself, and virtually everyone else with knowledge of the witch hunt, says there is no collusion.”
But Clapper never said that. In his initial comments on March 5, Clapper said he was unaware of any intelligence that could resolve “whether there were improper contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.” At a Senate hearing on Monday, Clapper explained that his unawareness didn’t mean that such evidence didn’t exist. “During my tenure as DNI, it was my practice to defer to the FBI director … on whether, when, and to what extent they would inform me about such investigations,” Clapper testified. He went on to note that he hadn’t even been aware—until Comey revealed it on March 20—that the FBI had been investigating contacts between Russia and Trump’s associates.
On Friday, Clapper rejected Trump’s and Pence’s mischaracterizations of his statements. “I don’t know if there was collusion or not,” Clapper told NBC News. “I don’t know if there’s evidence of collusion or not.” But Spicer, when he was asked later in the day about these clarifications from the former DNI, ignored them. Clapper “said multiple times, including in testimony in front of Congress, under oath, that there was no collusion,” Spicer declared, falsely.
The administration also claims that Comey himself vouched for the president’s innocence. In the letter he released Tuesday, Trump claimed that Comey had told him “on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation.” On Wednesday, Pence repeated this assertion, telling reporters that Trump “was informed several times by [Comey] that he himself was not under investigation.” In his interview with Holt, Trump elaborated: “He told me, ‘You are not under investigation.’ … He said it once at dinner, and then he said it twice during phone calls.” Trump said their interaction began this way: “He wanted to have dinner, because he wanted to stay on. … I think he asked for the dinner.”
Comey tells the story quite differently. The New York Times, based on accounts from two associates to whom Comey described the encounter, relays his version this way: Comey “was summoned to the White House for a one-on-one dinner” with Trump, and Trump “turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him. Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge. … Later in the dinner, Mr. Trump again said to Mr. Comey that he needed his loyalty.” In this presentation of Comey’s account, there’s no mention of any pledge that Trump was not under investigation.
On Friday, after the Times published this account, Trump tweeted a threat: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” The tweet, which Spicer refused to explain at his Friday briefing, echoed Richard Nixon, and it made a mockery of Trump’s bogus accusations that Obama tapped his phones. But if documentation of the dinner conversation does turn up, it’s unlikely to help Trump. The last time a White House claimed that Comey had misrepresented a conversation—during the George W. Bush administration—Comey’s version was vindicated by the contemporaneous notes of the then-FBI director. In this case, Clapper has already supplied testimony that fits Comey’s account, not Trump’s. The former DNI told NBC News that in a chat just before going to the dinner, Comey “mentioned that he had been invited to the White House to have dinner with the president and that he was uneasy with that because of compromising … the appearance of independence, not only of him but of the FBI.”
The White House also may have misrepresented the words of Comey’s temporary successor, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe. On Feb. 14, the Times reported that “members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.” White House chief of staff Reince Priebus went on a media tour to discredit the story. He claimed that a top intelligence official, identified by the White House as McCabe, had told Priebus—and authorized him to tell the public on behalf of the intelligence community—that “there’s nothing to” the Times report. In subsequent days, the White House repeated that McCabe and Comey, in the words of the Associated Press, “gave Priebus the go-ahead to discredit the story publicly.”
These would be odd things for McCabe to say, given his congressional testimony—and Comey’s—about not discussing information from the FBI’s Russia investigation with the White House. They would also be odd because subsequent reporting has confirmed much of the Feb. 14 Times story. On Feb. 23, an anonymous “law enforcement official,” responding to the White House account of Priebus’ conversations with Comey and McCabe, told CNN that “McCabe didn’t discuss aspects of the case.” McCabe doesn’t seem to have spoken on the record about Priebus’ portrayal of their interaction, and he wasn’t asked about it at a Senate hearing on Thursday. (He did, however, debunk the White House’s bogus claim that the FBI rank and file wanted Comey out.) Next time McCabe is in front of Congress or the press, someone should ask him whether he told Priebus there was nothing to the Times report, and whether he authorized the chief of staff to discredit the story on behalf of the FBI.
Rosenstein. Clapper. Comey. McCabe. Again and again, Trump, Pence, and their aides have misrepresented and abused, if not fabricated, statements from trusted officials. The lesson for the public is clear: Don’t believe the White House’s account of what anyone has said, particularly when it seems to exonerate the president. The lesson for officials is even clearer: Be careful what you say to or about Trump. Consider how your words could be twisted. Keep contemporaneous notes of your conversations with anyone at the White House. And don’t trust Trump to release his recording of what you said. Make your own.