Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s new attorney and foot-in-mouth artist, has struggled to explain Trump’s role in paying off Stormy Daniels. But he’s also struggling to explain why Trump, a year ago, fired then–FBI Director James Comey, who was leading the Russia investigation.
In an interview with Sean Hannity on Wednesday, Giuliani complained that special counsel Robert Mueller wants to ask Trump questions about what the president thought and felt when he fired Comey. “Those are all questions intended to trap” Trump into “contradicting what is in fact a very, very solid explanation,” said Giuliani.
It’s an odd complaint. Most of us wouldn’t consider it a trap to be asked why we did something. But for Trump, it’s a nightmare, because he has told so many conflicting stories. He has rationalized the Comey ouster in a draft termination letter, a final termination letter, a memo, and numerous interviews and tweets. None of these accounts can be reconciled with the others.
Start with Giuliani’s “very solid explanation.” Giuliani told Hannity that Trump “fired Comey because Comey would not, among other things, say that [Trump] wasn’t a target of the [Russia] investigation. … So he fired him, and he said, ‘I’m free of the guy,’ and he went on Lester Holt. … and Lester Holt asked him, ‘Why did you do it?’ [Trump] said, ‘I did it because I felt that I had to explain to the American people the president was not the target of the investigation.’ ”
Actually, no. That’s not what Trump said. Trump told Holt that he had fired Comey because Comey was a “showboat” and the FBI was “in turmoil.” Trump called collusion with Russia “a made-up story.” But when Holt asked Trump whether he was “angry with Mr. Comey” over taking up the Russia investigation, Trump said, “No, I don’t care.”
Trump did mention, in his termination letter to Comey, that the FBI director had told him “on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.” But that wasn’t the reason Trump gave for the firing. The reason, Trump wrote, was “the attached letters” from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “recommending your dismissal.” Sessions’ letter was a cover letter for Rosenstein’s memo. And that memo is what Trump cited again on Friday to justify the firing. “Take a look, as an example, at the Rod Rosenstein letter to me prior to the firing of James Comey,” Trump told reporters. “Just read it. Put it in the air. Your viewers don’t know about it. Put that letter on the air. It very much speaks very loudly.”
OK, let’s read it. In the memo, Rosenstein faulted Comey for exceeding his authority on two occasions. The first was July 2016, when Comey publicly chastised Hillary Clinton for her email practices. “We do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation,” Rosenstein wrote. The second incident was Comey’s October 2016 letter to Congress, which declared a resumption of the investigation. The Justice Department, Rosenstein wrote, has a “longstanding policy that we refrain from publicizing” such steps.
Rosenstein’s argument is the opposite of what Trump has said all along. To this day, Trump maintains that Comey conspired to help Clinton. “Comey drafted the Crooked Hillary exoneration long before he talked to her,” Trump tweeted on April 16. Quoting Fox News, the president called Comey’s investigation of Clinton “rigged,” saying, “they exonerated her even before they ever interviewed her.” On Wednesday, Trump touted a book about “the illicit scheme to clear Hillary Clinton.”
So Trump seems not to have taken Rosenstein’s memo seriously. Or maybe he didn’t understand it. Or maybe he never read it. In any event, Trump told Holt, the memo was irrelevant. In the interview, he said Rosenstein “had made a recommendation. But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”
You can see why Giuliani worries that Trump will contradict himself in a sit-down with Mueller. We’re now talking about five incompatible accounts: the termination letter, the attached memo, the interview with Holt, the tweets, and Trump’s comments to reporters.
The more you look at these accounts, the more chaos you find. The termination letter attributes Comey’s firing to the memo, but the memo doesn’t say Comey should be fired. In fact, a week after he wrote the memo, Rosenstein told Congress that it wasn’t “a survey of FBI morale or performance” or “a statement of reasons to justify a for-cause termination.” That contradicts both the termination letter and what Trump said about FBI morale in his interview with Holt.
The memo also emphasizes that the FBI director shouldn’t make public statements about investigations without Justice Department authorization. But that’s exactly what Trump, according to Giuliani, sought from Comey. He wanted Comey to tell the public that Trump wasn’t under investigation. And when Comey asked Trump to go through proper DOJ channels, Trump fired him.
Then there’s a sixth version of why Trump fired Comey. It’s a draft letter, prepared in the week before the firing, that supposedly represents Trump’s true feelings. According to the Washington Post, aides who have seen the letter say it “blasted Comey over his investigation of … Clinton.” The draft hasn’t been released, but Mueller has it. You can imagine how tricky it will be for Trump to square that draft with the final version, in which he attributes the firing to a memo about how unfairly Comey treated Clinton.
And I almost forgot a seventh account: the one Trump gave to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov the day after he sacked Comey. “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told Lavrov, according to internal White House notes. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Personally, I give extra weight to this account, since Trump delivered it in private. Unfortunately for Giuliani, it contradicts all the others.
Trump and Giuliani can’t even get their story straight about Rosenstein. Trump “never should have appointed Rosenstein,” Giuliani told Hannity on Wednesday. “Do you know that Rosenstein was with Mueller the night, or the day, he was interviewed by President Trump to be FBI director? Walked out, knew that he was turned down, and then appointed him the next day?” Giuliani struggled to explain how this showed bias against Trump. He said it showed that Rosenstein was “a witness to critical information.” To be fair, that’s probably true, since Rosenstein may have witnessed the use of his memo to obstruct justice. But Trump couldn’t even stick to Giuliani’s story. On Friday, disregarding Giuliani’s attack on Rosenstein, Trump was back to touting the deputy attorney general’s memo.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, can barely keep track of all these tales. “James Comey was fired for lying, leaking, and politicizing the FBI,” she said Thursday.
When reporters pointed out that the firing preceded the alleged lies and leaks, she all but threw up her hands. “There are a number of reasons that James Comey was fired. The president has named several of them. But the bottom line is he doesn’t have to justify his decision,” she pleaded. “He can hire and fire whomever he wants.”
Poor Sarah. Poor Rudy. Defending the president’s story is hard work. Particularly when you’re not sure which story to defend.