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Trump keeps Comey battle alive by warning him not to talk

May 12, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
The firing of former FBI Director James Comey continues to spark controversy and questions. President Trump tweeted Friday that “Comey had better hope there are no tapes of our conversations,” and Press Secretary Sean Spicer refused to answer press questions about whether there are recording devices in the White House. Lisa Desjardins reports and John Yang joins Judy Woodruff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re 113 days into the Trump presidency, with more than 1,300 left until the next Inauguration Day. At times, it’s felt like a whirlwind, and this week may have brought the most tumultuous yet.

Our Lisa Desjardins brings us up to speed.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, Deputy White House Press Secretary: And now I will take your questions.

LISA DESJARDINS: A roller-coast week for the White House ended with more turbulence and questions.

QUESTION: Does he think it’s appropriate to threaten someone like Mr. Comey?

LISA DESJARDINS: After reports that allies of fired FBI Director James Comey insist he never told President Trump that he wasn’t under investigation, the opposite of the president’s version.

This morning, a tweeting President Trump fired out: “Comey better hope that there are no tapes of our conversations.”

At the White House, reporters asked Press Secretary Sean Spicer if that was meant as a message.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: That is not a threat. He’s simply stated a fact.

LISA DESJARDINS: Asked repeatedly if there are recording devices in the Oval Office, Spicer refused to answer.

SEAN SPICER: The president has nothing further to add on that.

LISA DESJARDINS: The back and forth and back again this week has been dizzying. It may clear things up to look at the two core issues: Why was Director Comey fired, and when was that decision made?

First, why — here’s what the president said yesterday to NBC News.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.

LISA DESJARDINS: But just one day earlier, Wednesday, Vice President Pence told reporters the issues were a lack of confidence and recommendations from the Justice Department.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The American people have to have confidence in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And because of the actions that the deputy attorney general outlined to the president that were endorsed and agreed with by the attorney general, the president made the right decision at the right time.

LISA DESJARDINS: Pence was referencing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. His letter released Tuesday centered on charges that Comey mishandled the Clinton investigation, nothing about Russia.

The other rationale for Comey’s firing — it was in the president’s letter to Comey — restoring trust and confidence in the FBI, but that was directly countered yesterday by acting FBI Chief Andrew McCabe.

ANDREW MCCABE, Acting FBI Director: I can tell you also that Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.

LISA DESJARDINS: At different times, the White House pointed to three different reasons for the Comey firing. There were also varying descriptions of when and how that decision was made.

Here’s the president in yesterday’s NBC interview.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey, my decision. I was going to fire, regardless of recommendation.

LISA DESJARDINS: That is at odds with the previous two days of staff statements.

First, Press Secretary Spicer speaking off-camera minutes after the Comey firing told reporters it was a DOJ decision made by no one at the White House.

Wednesday, Vice President Pence pointed seven times to the Justice Department recommendation.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: President Trump made the right decision at the right time, and to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general, to ask for the termination, to support the termination of the director of the FBI.

LISA DESJARDINS: Same day, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders implied the Justice Department initiated the idea to fire Comey.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: He did have a conversation with the deputy attorney general on Monday, where they had come to him to express their concerns.

LISA DESJARDINS: But one day later, a change: Sanders said the president had told her he decided earlier.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I went off of the information that I had when I answered your question. I have since had the conversation with him right before I walked on today, and he laid it out very clearly. He’d already made that decision. He’d been thinking about it for months.

LISA DESJARDINS: Today, the president tweeted that he is a very active president and it’s not possible for his surrogates to have perfect accuracy.

Press Secretary Spicer summed up the Comey firing this way today:

SEAN SPICER: This is always going to be the president’s decision, to hire someone, to fire someone. He made a decision, in part based on the recommendation. And he is now focused on making sure that we will have a replacement at the FBI.

LISA DESJARDINS: Spicer said there is no set timeline for the president to choose his new FBI nominee, that it will happen when he finds the right person.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Lisa Desjardins.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we are joined now from the White House by correspondent John Yang.

So, John, a few other threads that we want to pursue right now. One is, the president was asked earlier this week by Senator Lindsey Graham for a letter to certify that he had — to explain what his connections are to Russia. Now you have seen that letter. What does it say?

JOHN YANG: Well, it’s from his tax attorneys. They have looked at the past 10 years of his tax returns. They say they show no investments in Russia, show no loan payments, interest payments to lenders from Russia.

They say the only income was about $12 million in 2013 for the Miss Universe Pageant and the proceeds for a $95 million sale of a Florida estate to a Russian billionaire. But tax experts say that this is not conclusive, that there are many other ways that the president could have dealings with Russia that are not included in this letter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, John, separately, another issue that’s come up in all this back and forth that we just heard from Lisa has to do with the White House press briefing, and the president had something interesting to say about that today.

JOHN YANG: He’s got an idea of his own. He said, instead of a daily briefing, there should only be a briefing once every two weeks, and that he should give it. He said he thinks that’s a good idea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we don’t know yet whether that’s going to take place.

Just quickly, John, one other story I want to ask you about, the conflicting reports about a dinner that the president had with James Comey in late January?

JOHN YANG: That’s right.

In the interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, the president said that this was a dinner that Mr. Comey had asked for because he wanted to keep his job. Friends of Mr. Comey’s say that that was actually not the case from his point of view. He says that he was asked to come to the White House for dinner.

And he also said — Comey said that he was asked several times by the president whether he could have his personal loyalty, whether the president would have his personal loyalty. He said that all he could promise was that he would have his honesty.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot to keep track of. John Yang, we thank you.

And we will get another view of the firing of FBI Director Comey from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. That’s right after the news summary.