'Erosion of confidence’: White House addresses Comey firing & fallout
Deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders held the daily briefing on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after Trump unexpectedly fired Comey, the country’s top cop, who was leading an investigation into alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“There’s also a nugget of big news, you guys may have been paying attention [to] in regard to the termination of the former FBI director, Comey,” she said during the prepared portion of the briefing.
It was the first on-camera explanation of the events, although members of the Trump communication team did answer questions from reporters on the White House lawn on Tuesday night after press secretary Sean Spicer “spent several minutes hidden in the bushes” where he had been “huddling with his staff behind a tall hedge” after an interview with Fox Business, the Washington Post reported.
(The Post later walked back the description, saying that Spicer was “among bushes… not ‘in the bushes,’ as the story originally said.”)
The 10-minute, ad-hoc briefing with more than a dozen reporters that occurred off-camera and “in near darkness between two tall hedges” was short on details, and Sanders sought to fill in the gaps about what happened.
“Over the last several months,” the president had an “erosion of confidence,” because “Comey has shown over... the last year a lot of missteps and mistakes.” The Department of Justice, bipartisan members of Congress and “most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI” had all “lost confidence” in Comey as well, she said.
Trump had been considering letting Comey go “since the day he was elected,” she added.
On Monday, Trump met with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who “had come to him to express their concerns” about Comey, Sanders said. The president asked the deputy AG to “put those concerns and recommendation in writing,” which is the letter that was released after Comey was fired. Beforehand, Trump informed several high-ranking members of Congress from both parties and both chambers of his decision.
The catalyst for the firing was Comey’s testimony to Congress last Wednesday, in which the FBI director “made a pretty startling revelation that he had essentially taken a stick of dynamite” to the DOJ “by going around the chain of command” when discussing the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state. Comey’s failure to stop leaks coming out of the FBI was another factor in Trump’s decision, Sanders said.
The firing “followed proper protocol,” with a member of the president’s staff hand delivering the pink slip to the FBI headquarters in Washington, Sanders said. Comey was at the Los Angeles field office in California, and reportedly learned of his termination from the news while addressing agents. Comey thought that he was being pranked.
When asked about reports that, in the days before his firing, Comey had sought both subpoenas for associates of Michael Flynn, Trump’s fired national security adviser, and more resources for the FBI’s Russia probe, Sanders directed reporters to the DOJ. The subpoenas went out hours before Comey was fired, CNN reported, while the FBI has not received an answer about more funding from Rosenstein, according to the New York Times.
“The idea that he asked for more funding” from Rosenstein, the newly confirmed deputy attorney general, is “totally false,” DOJ spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores told the NY Times. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from anything involved with the Russia probe.
Many of those who criticized Comey’s firing focused on the timing of the decision, calling it “Nixonian,” referring to President Richard Nixon’s infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” during the Watergate investigation. Trump met with both Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Nixon’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, in the White House on Wednesday, and Comey was set to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.
“The timing of all of this, is it just ironic or is this the president poking a finger in his critics’ eye?” one reporter asked.
“Look, these meetings have been on the books for a while, they didn’t just happen this morning,” Sanders replied. ”I think frankly the saddest thing is that the Democrats are trying to politicize and take away from something that the president should be be doing.”
“For them to try to attack him for doing his job maybe they should spend more time doing their jobs, and we wouldn’t have all the problems that we do,” she added.
When asked if the president would appoint a special prosecutor to continue the investigation, as many lawmakers have called for, Sanders responded that the White House doesn’t think it’s necessary.
“You’ve got a House committee, a Senate committee and the Department of Justice all working on this,” she said. “I don’t think that there’s a necessary need at this point to add that. You’ve got the deputy attorney general who, I would say, is about as independent as it comes due to the fact that he has such bipartisan support.”
Members of the White House press corp repeatedly asked Sanders about the backlash Trump faced over the firing, noting that the administration seemed caught off guard about it.
“How could he have” anticipated the backlash, Sanders asked in response. Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including “most of the people that are declaring war today” like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), had repeatedly called for Comey’s ousting, she noted, adding that Democrats “come out and fight [Trump] every single step of the way.”