Obstruction of Competence
Last week, FBI Director James Comey was unceremoniously fired while attending a recruiting session in Los Angeles. Caught off guard by the political fallout, the White House was quick to push a narrative that focused on a review of Comey’s performance from his newly appointed boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Vice President Mike Pence was among the administration members pressed into service putting out the latest fire only to be contradicted by the president’s subsequent explanations. By Friday, Trump had tweeted a veiled threat to “tapes” of his discussions with Comey, which the president alleged exonerated him in the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.
A week after Comey’s termination, numerous outlets reported essentially the same account of Trump’s efforts in February to persuade the FBI to end its investigation of recently terminated National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. The account, written in a memorandum for record that the director shared to other members of the Bureau — but not the investigative team — includes a quote from the president to “let this go.” Several of the press accounts, including the one in The New York Times, which broke the story, report that Comey wrote several memos about conversations with the president. Interestingly, some of the memos are even classified, which would seem to indicate that the president and the director were discussing classified information or that the director felt the need to add classified information to provide context to these discussions.
Both the account in the Times and The Washington Post includes complaints from the president that the FBI was not investigating the leaking of information to the satisfaction of the White House. The Post’s account as of Tuesday evening included a reference to Department of Justice officials reviewing Comey’s memos. The Times’ account, on the other hand, said it was not clear if DOJ officials had seen the memos. Comey’s interactions with the president were widely discussed last week, when the president identified the three times the director supposedly exonerated him, including one time at a quasi-job interview dinner. The New York Times report of the dinner included Comey’s refusal to pledge loyalty to the president and may have originated from associates recounting a memo from the director. The dinner occurred one day after Acting Attorney General Sally Yates raised the alarm about Flynn’s conduct to the White House.
There have been bipartisan calls for Comey’s memos and testimony. The stories rekindle the controversy over the administration’s decision to fire the director for performance, an unprecedented decision, amidst the ongoing investigation into Russia’s meddling in the elections. Acting Director Andrew McCabe said in testimony last week that this investigation was viewed as “highly significant” — a level of concern that some in the White House had previously sought to refute.
Both The New York Times and The Washington Post reported last week that Trump’s desire to fire Comey was kept among a small group of advisers. In addition to Rosenstein, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Stephen Bannon, Donald McGahn, and Reince Priebus were involved in the decision making process. The involvement of Sessions, who recused himself from the Russia investigation after misleading statements made regarding his communications with Russian officials during confirmation hearings, was justified by the White House by the supposedly broad nature review conducted by Rosenstein. Sessions has remained involved in the selection process of Comey’s replacement.
At the very least, Trump’s judgment with regard to Flynn seems to be a problem. The Daily Beast reported last week that Trump has approached White House lawyers about resuming contact with his former advisor. This account portrays the president troubled by press accounts of the investigation into Flynn’s contact and the belief that Flynn is a “good guy” — same language as the Comey memo.
The White House’s short lived spin zoning of the Comey firing is reminiscent of the Devin Nunes debacle in March of this year. After Comey’s testimony confirmed a counterintelligence investigation as ongoing into the Trump campaign and Russia, Nunes and the White House cooked up a classified sideshow that only ended up in Nunes’ forced recusal. There is every reason to believe Nunes and the White House coordinated this spectacle (read Ryan Lizza’s accounts in The New Yorker here and here). The White House also haggled with Yates’ attorney concerning her ability to testify to Nunes’ committee. Eventually, the White House withdrew but on the same day Nunes canceled that hearing, Washington Post. It would be more than a month before Yates finally testified in an open hearing about her concerns with the role Flynn played in the White House.
Rosenstein is scheduled to meet with the entire Senate on Thursday to discuss the removal of Comey. The timetable for obtaining the Comey memos is set at about one week, based on the letter Representative Jason Chaffetz sent Tuesday evening. Senator Lindsey Graham has called for Comey to testify. The White House will likely face more bad days in the press and does not seem to be able to handle the pressure.