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How the White House’s explanation of Comey firing has changed

May 11, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
As President Trump lambasted in an interview the man he had fired two days ago, the acting FBI director at a Senate hearing painted a very different picture of James Comey. Meanwhile, the president's explanation seemed to contradict what White House officials have been saying. William Brangham recaps the conflicting statements and Judy Woodruff gets an update from Lisa Desjardins and John Yang.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was another day in Washington that generated more questions than answers, with apparently conflicting statements coming from the White House, fueling the firestorm surrounding the dismissal of the former FBI director.

And our William Brangham begins.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: President Trump came out swinging today.

In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, the president laid into James Comey, the man he fired just two days ago.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Look, he’s a showboat. He’s a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that.

You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago. It hasn’t recovered from that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Those remarks came as the man who’s now filling in for Comey, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, painted a starkly different picture of his former boss.

ANDREW MCCABE, Acting FBI Director: I hold Director Comey in the absolute highest regard. I have the highest respect for his considerable abilities and his integrity. And it has been the greatest privilege and honor of my professional life to work with him. I can tell you also that Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: McCabe spoke at a Senate hearing today to discuss various global threats, but Democrats spared little time blasting the president for his dismissal of Comey, who had been scheduled for this same hearing.

SEN. MARK WARNER, D-Va.: President Trump’s actions this week cost us an opportunity to get at truth, at least for today.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For his part, McCabe pledged that the ongoing FBI investigation into Russian meddling in the election, and whether Trump’s team colluded in that meddling, will continue no matter what.

ANDREW MCCABE: The work of the men and women of FBI continues, despite any changes in circumstance, any decisions. So there has been no effort to impede our investigation to date. Simply put, sir, you cannot stop the men and women of FBI from doing right thing, protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: McCabe added he won’t be updating the president on that Russia investigation.

Senators pressed him about Mr. Trump’s claim that Comey had told the president he wasn’t personally under investigation. McCabe said he couldn’t comment on the specific conversations between the two.

Republican Susan Collins of Maine followed up.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-Maine: Is it standard practice for the FBI to inform someone that they are not a target of an investigation?


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Meanwhile, in that same NBC interview, the president doubled down on that claim, saying Comey told him three times that he wasn’t a target.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He said it once at dinner, and then he said it twice during phone calls.

LESTER HOLT, NBC News: Did you call him?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In one case, I called him. In one case, he called me.

LESTER HOLT: And did you ask, am I under investigation?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I actually asked him, yes. I said, if it’s possible, will you let me know, am I under investigation? He said, you are not under investigation.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Mr. Trump also said he had decided to fire Comey long before meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Monday.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey, my decision. It was not …

LESTER HOLT: You had made the decision before they came …


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey. There’s no good time to do it, by the way. They …


LESTER HOLT: Because, in your letter, you said, “I accepted their recommendation.”


LESTER HOLT: So, you had already made the decision?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Oh, I was going to fire regardless.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But that seemed to contradict what senior White House officials had been saying all week.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Vice President Mike Pence, and Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had all indicated that the firing was driven largely by concerns from the Justice Department. But news reports had suggested otherwise.

And The Washington Post reported last night Rosenstein threatened to resign after the White House cast him as the prime mover of the decision to fire Comey.

At today’s press briefing, Sanders offered a justification for the seeming inconsistencies.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, Deputy White House Press Secretary: I think it’s pretty simple. I haven’t had a chance to have the conversation directly the president. I have since had the conversation with him right before I walked on today. And he laid it out very clearly. He had already made that decision. And the recommendation that he got from the deputy attorney general just further solidified his decision.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Meanwhile, outrage over Comey’s ouster stretched beyond Washington. Lawmakers, including New Jersey’s Tom MacArthur, have seen vocal opposition at town hall meetings to the president’s action.

MAN: We need an independent prosecutor. We need a bipartisan select committee to investigate this. When are you going to open your eyes? We all see this.

REP. TOM MACARTHUR, R-N.J.: And I hear you, but there are loads of other people who don’t see it that way.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Despite those calls, there have been few signs so far that a special counsel will be named.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we get more now from the White House and from Capitol Hill from our own John Yang and Lisa Desjardins.

Lisa, I’m going to start with you.

You were at the hearing today where James Comey’s successor, at least for the time being, Andrew McCabe — we just heard a little bit from him, his first public appearance, I guess, what, in less than 48 hours after this whole thing came down. What stood out to you from this hearing?

LISA DESJARDINS: Quite a day, huh? On his third day on the job, Andrew McCabe was in front of Senate Intelligence Committee members, and for the most part, Judy, he was noncontroversial.

But when asked about his former boss, FBI — James Comey, McCabe said this. He defended him as man of integrity who McCabe said enjoys broad support in the FBI to this day. That’s important because it directly counters what the White House has said. They said that Comey was undermining morale at the agency.

Minutes after McCabe said that, the Senate intelligence chairman, Republican Richard Burr, came out, also defended Comey. That became a theme, Judy. I spoke to several Republican senators who today felt they had to defend Comey’s reputation against attacks from the White House.

Meanwhile, as Republicans were doing that, one Democratic senator on the Intelligence Committee, Kamala Harris of California, came out and said she thinks Jeff Sessions should resign over his role in the Comey firing.

Now, all of this, what does it mean? Basically, Judy, I saw the dial move away from the president’s position for both Republicans and Democrats today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meantime, John, from the White House, the timeline on exactly what happened seemed to be shifting, and the explanation seemed to be shifting a little bit. Tell us about that.

JOHN YANG: It didn’t just seem to shift, Judy. It shifted. They first said that this all happened on Tuesday, that the attorney general and the deputy attorney general came to the president with this recommendation, which he accepted on the spot.

Then we learned that actually there was a meeting on Monday at which this was discussed. And then it turns out, as the president said in the interview and as Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in the briefing today, this was actually something on the president’s mind from since last week, when he watched the — James Comey’s testimony on the Hill.

Also shifting where it came from. They originally said this was all Rod Rosenstein — Rosenstein’s idea. Now the president and his advisers acknowledge he had made this decision before that meeting on Monday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Lisa, just quickly, interesting, there was a Republican at the Capitol today saying the president himself may not be under investigation.

LISA DESJARDINS: Yes, not just any Republican, Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley. He says he met — he wrote a letter saying he met with FBI Director Comey and that Comey shared with him who the targets were of the investigation, as per his ranking on Judiciary Committee.

Now, Grassley said he can’t divulge who the targets are, but, in a carefully worded statement, Judy, Grassley said, nothing that Comey told him contradicts President Trump’s statement that he is not under investigation.

That’s a double or triple negative, but, essentially, Grassley is indicating here that, to his knowledge, the president is not under investigation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just finally, John, what are you hearing from the White House about whether what has happened is going to affect the pace of this Russia investigation?

JOHN YANG: Well, that’s another thing that’s evolved over the last couple of days, Judy.

On Tuesday night, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said there is no there there of the Russian investigation. She said, it’s time to move on, clearly indicating that the White House wanted it closed.

But since then and again today, she said any investigation that was going on, on Monday before Comey was fired is still going on today. They want the FBI to do what they think is proper and fit, and they say they want this investigation to continue, but to end as quickly as possible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I guess it doesn’t get any more active at either place, at the Capitol or the White House.

Thank you both, John Yang, Lisa Desjardins.