ROBERT COSTA: Chaos, contradictions and threats. President Trump’s decision to fire the FBI director launches a week of inconsistent explanations from the White House. I’m Robert Costa. We explore how the dismissal of James Comey may accelerate the investigation into Russian interference, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) He’s a showboat. He’s a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil.
MR. COSTA: President Trump insists he fired FBI Director James Comey because of his poor job performance, not because of the ongoing probe into Russian meddling or the recommendations of two top Justice Department officials. But that’s not the message the vice president delivered earlier in the week.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: (From video.) President Trump made the right decision at the right time to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general and the attorney general to ask for the termination.
MR. COSTA: And it’s not consistent with the president’s own words about why he terminated Comey.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) 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.
MR. COSTA: Plus, conflicting reports that the president pressed Comey for his loyalty soon after Inauguration Day. And by week’s end, Trump tweets a warning: “James Comey better hope there are no ‘tapes’ of conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
As calls intensify for an independent prosecutor, we explore the ramifications for the White House, Congress, and the intelligence community with Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Margaret Brennan of CBS News, Pete Williams of NBC News, and Erica Werner of the Associated Press.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Where to begin? It was a week where Donald Trump’s efforts to distance himself from the federal investigation into Russian interference grew more complicated by the words and actions of the president and his closest advisers. He dismissed James Comey as director of the FBI. That’s certainly his right, but why did that decision unravel so quickly and so dramatically? The White House initially said Comey was dismissed because of his handling of the probe into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails, yet the president didn’t mention that in his termination letter to Comey. Instead he wrote: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”
At first, Trump’s advisers said Comey was fired based on the recommendations of Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Days later, the president said the decision to dismiss Comey was his and his alone.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) He made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it.
MR. COSTA: Pete, inside of the FBI, do they believe that Comey was dismissed because he would not end the investigation into Russian interference?
PETE WILLIAMS: Oh yes, absolutely. That is the prevailing view. That is their assumption. They assume that because James Comey wouldn’t shut it down, that’s why he got fired. And this really was a double body blow to the FBI. Number one, Comey was not universally loved, but universally respected. He was a very popular person, always spoke up for individual agents. So the firing was a huge blow to them. But secondly, the way it was handled, with – completely devoid of dignity. The White House, apparently unaware that he wasn’t at the FBI, sent a letter over there. He was in Los Angeles, about to speak to a seminar on how to get more diversity in the FBI, a recruiting seminar. He’s standing in the ops center – you know, every command center of the FBI has all those TVs tuned to the cable networks. He’s standing there, and right behind him some L.A. affiliate is reporting that he’s been fired. That’s how he found out, and had to sort of slink back to Washington and didn’t even have time to get the family pictures off his desk. So it was a real blow to them. They are just stunned by it.
MR. COSTA: It was a stunning moment. And, Margaret, have we gotten any clarity from the White House about whether the president demanded loyalty from Comey months ago?
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, the White House denies that that was a demand or a request made over this dinner. But according to reporting from some of my colleagues at CBS, that was in fact a conversation that was had in regard to pledging loyalty versus what the FBI director offered, which was more honesty. And so we’ll see what happens on that. If there are these “tapes,” as the president said in his tweet today, perhaps we will all hear of it someday.
But I think this gets to that question of just the president’s own view of the institutions that serve the American people and whether they are meant – how they are supposed to function, and whether it’s serving him or serving the public at large. And so that’s, I think, what troubles many people when they are interacting with the White House and trying to understand. It seems sometimes that in the communications it’s a decision in search of a process. It almost seems like that’s what happened with this communication, that the decision was made to fire and then these letters come out, and there’s the back and forth over who pulled the trigger and when, and what actually got the president to go through with this. And you just heard the president say himself, well, I was going to fire him anyway, regardless of what anyone told me.
MR. COSTA: Erica, when are we going to learn more from Congress? I know Democrats, who are in the minority in both chambers, are pushing for a special prosecutor. That seems unlikely to happen at the moment, at least when I was at the Capitol this week. But what do the Republicans want to do to delve further into these questions?
ERICA WERNER: Well, it really remains to be seen as this story unfolds. Keep in mind that this week on the Hill the House was on recess and senators, as they cast their final votes and left town yesterday, the story was still rapidly unfolding. At that point, the White House was still on the story that it was Rosenstein’s memo that had prompted the firing. Trump had not yet given his interviews, where he totally turned that around. But even at that point, Republicans had a lot of questions about what was going on, especially from the rank and file, more so than we’ve seen at any point in the Trump presidency to date. They were clearly unnerved by what had happened and why. Mitch McConnell and Speaker Ryan are sticking with the president so far, but it is a very open question how long that lasts.
MR. COSTA: Dan, Rosenstein’s going to come to Capitol Hill next week. He’ll brief the Senate on what happened here. How important is that testimony going to be for this president, and what can we expect to hear from Rosenstein?
DAN BALZ: I think it’s obviously very important. Anytime somebody who has been in the middle of one of these goes up to the Hill and testifies, or reports really to the Senate, we’re going to know a lot about it very quickly. He has a big question mark around him. There have been reports that in the aftermath of the way this was rolled out he was quite unhappy that he was – that he was made to seem as being the agent of the firing. He will have to explain that as best he can. I’m sure he will have to be very careful about that, knowing that he’s still part of the Trump administration, but that’s a big question. Another question is the degree to which they would have confidence in him if it comes to appointing a special prosecutor. Again, we’re a ways away from that. It doesn’t look like that’s likely in the near term. But if it does, there are, as you know, Democratic senators who think, because of his role in the firing of Comey, that he should not be in charge of picking a special prosecutor. So there are a lot of questions that people have. As we know, I mean, the focus will continue to be on the Republicans in the Senate, the degree to which they are standing by the president and when or if we will see some cracks in that.
MR. WILLIAMS: You asked how important that is to the president. It’s very important to Rod Rosenstein because there are some questions about this. And the justification or the explanation that we got as the week wore on was that this was a meeting of the minds, that the president has concluded he should be fired and that he summoned Sessions and Rosenstein over and they say, well, you know what, we’ve reached the same conclusion, clearly for completely different reasons. So the president says to Rosenstein, well, put your thoughts on paper, here comes this bill of particulars about the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and that’s what was put out. But Rosenstein was very upset at the way he was depicted in this. Some had reported he threatened to resign. I don’t think that’s the case, but clearly he wants to try to set the record straight.
MR. COSTA: Let’s talk about who’s still there if Congress is slow walking on some fronts here. A number of White House advisors also claimed this week that Comey had lost the support of the FBI’s rank and file. But during a Senate hearing this week, acting attorney general – excuse me – acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe contradicted the White House assertion.
ACTING FBI DIRECTOR ANDREW MCCABE: (From video.) I can confidently tell you that the majority – the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey.
MR. COSTA: So, Margaret, we’re seeing McCabe come out and say that this investigation goes on into Russian interference, even as Congress may be taking it a little bit slow.
MS. BRENNAN: And he made it – he put it in very stark terms, saying, you know, you can’t stop the men and women of the FBI in their pursuit of the truth here and serving the Constitution. But you talk about loyalty. I think you saw a big demonstration of that there, from McCabe really defending his former boss and trying to defend the institution where he works as an agency, saying that we will uphold and have integrity in this investigation.
And I think when you hear from the White House that the president wants this investigation to continue and end with integrity, that actually gets contradicted when the president tweets things out like he has, saying that this is all a farce, this is all just driven by Democrats, this is all political, that there’s not – that the FBI in continuing to go through an ongoing investigation is somehow politically minded and not grounded in fact.
MR. COSTA: Where was Attorney General Sessions in all this, Erica?
MS. WERNER: Well, as you know, he had recused himself, not just from the Russia investigation but supposedly from any investigations that touched on presidential campaigns. And yet, he appears to have been intimately involved in the decision to fire, or at least that was how it was initially purported to be. The president then, of course, when on to say that it was his own decision and his decision alone. But that is just one of the many questions that members of Congress, and particularly Democratic senators, have.
And this goes to why Democrats will continue to push for a special prosecutor, and are not going to stop and let up on that demand, because as Margaret was pointing out, the FBI may have integrity and their goal may be to lead this investigation with integrity, but at the end of the day the Justice Department is over the FBI and Democrats have completely lost faith in the Department of Justice and the administration.
MR. COSTA: Dan, Washington’s been upended by this whole episode, but what’s the response in the country?
MR. BALZ: Well, I think at this point, you know, the general public is several steps away from where we are here in Washington. I mean, this has been a white-hot week in Washington, with, you know, people comparing it to Watergate and speculating and all of that. This has been a very damaging week for the White House. There’s no question about that. The credibility of the White House has been – has been really shattered as a result of the changing stories, or certainly seemingly changing stories.
I think out in the country people are still evaluating. But that’s the norm in cases like this. I mean, these things take on a life of their own inside Washington. And depending on where the investigation goes, the country will catch up with that.
MR. COSTA: Pete, are there going to be legal challenges to President Trump? He makes these calls and has these conversations with Director Comey. What kind of hot water, if any, is the president in for talking to the head of the FBI – the then-head of the FBI?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, certainly the question, am I under investigation, is, according to every legal scholar I’ve talked to, not a problem. The question would be is the firing of the FBI director in the middle of the investigation obstruction of justice? The question is, what would be the legal – I mean, there would be legal consequences if the FBI determined that he committed a crime. But aside from that, I don’t know what legal consequences there would be. I don’t know who could sue him for –
MR. COSTA: Democrats are saying obstruction of justice. When I was at the Capitol, that’s the charge they keep making. They keep bringing up Nixonian language as they talk about this.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, of course, the Justice Department would have to investigate that – (laughs) – or a special counsel. It’s not an easy case to make. You have to look at the president’s intent. Now, some have said, well, he laid it right out there when he said it’s this Russia thing that he keeps harping on. But he also mentioned a whole bunch of other things. So to try to signal intent – especially when you have the attorney general and the deputy attorney general agreeing that James Comey had to go, for a variety of different reasons, that would make that a very hard case to make.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of Russia, they say a picture is worth a thousand words. And it was certainly true this week after the president posed for some photos with Russian diplomats just one day after he fired James Comey. President Trump, he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office. Intelligence sources have called Kislyak Russia’s top spy in America. You’ll recall National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was fired for lying about meetings he had with the diplomat.
Margaret, the American press was blocked from being part of this meeting, from covering this meeting. And a lot of news agencies were using Russian photos. What was that like at the White House when you were there, and what does that tell us about the White House’s relationship with Russia?
MS. BRENNAN: It was surreal. I mean, I was sitting there at my desk right off the White House briefing room, looking at my Twitter feed saying: Oh my God, that’s the Oval Office right now. I mean, this was supposed to be a closed to all press meeting. And then government websites run by the Russian government, their embassy, their foreign ministry, are posting photos – smiling photos, arms around each other, chuckling, hands being shaked – of not only the top diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, but Sergey Kislyak, the ambassador that you just talked about. And that’s what really got attention. There were a series of other surreal moments following that, in terms of stumbling into Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office when we thought we were all going in to finally get a photo with Sergei Lavrov.
So it was – what is interesting about this is that the White House said basically this was a misunderstanding. In fact, they thought they were misled, that this photographer they allowed to remain in the room worked for Russian state media organization and not the official foreign ministry photographer. And that’s what they thought they had. So that’s where this ends. The Russian photographer has come out with statements saying, well, you American press didn’t try too hard. And I will tell you, that was not – that that’s not accurate. (Laughter.)
But it gets to this broader sort of diplomatic stagecraft, that it seems was amateurish, frankly, when you are dealing with an extremely experienced – I mean, decades of experience at the U.N. and at the foreign ministry level. Sergei Lavrov is someone who walks in knowing what he wants out of a meeting. And they got the picture they wanted to show to their people. And it was all over the papers back home. And it looks like Russia got a much better relationship with Donald Trump, the president, the candidate that they favored.
MR. COSTA: Did he though, Dan? It’s somewhat cloudy to look at foreign policy in terms of Trump and Russia. He has these warmer relations. He’s heading on a trip next week. The president’s going abroad. But when Margaret was asking National Security Advisor McMaster today about the Russian relationship, we’re still not really getting a vivid picture of what that is.
MR. BALZ: Well, I think that what we have seen almost consistently is that the president has been reluctant to be tough on Russia and on Vladimir Putin in his public statements. But everyone around him has taken up that charge – whether it’s H.R. McMaster or Mattis or Nikki Haley, the ambassador at the U.N., or even Secretary of State Tillerson. And so, in a sense, he’s surrounded by people who are carrying the message that the traditional foreign policy establishment wants to hear. And yet, he won’t actually say all of those words. It will be interesting when he goes on his overseas trip, what we hear from him when he’s in foreign capitals.
MS. BRENNAN: General McMaster said today: These are engagements. They’re not decisions and not strategies. I don’t know what that means in terms of the approach to Russia. But when the words and the actions conflict, it gets us to that broader, what is the Trump foreign policy and what is the real intent with Russia? And it may not get us to a better relationship. When I was in Moscow with Secretary Tillerson a few weeks ago, those were some tough conversations and tough meetings in the wake of those Syria strikes.
MR. COSTA: Pete?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I can – I can only bring it back to the FBI. And I can tell you that the FBI Russia investigation will not be derailed by the firing of James Comey. You heard, as Margaret said, this very muscular statement from the deputy director, who has become the acting director. And you can fully expect – this was at an Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats. And you can fully expect that he would be sort of freshman-reluctant to sit back and just kind of yes, ma’am and no, sir. But it was a very muscular statement, like the FBI’s a freight train. You’re not going to stop it.
And he also said, by the way, that he had no idea whether FBI Director Comey said to the president you’re not under investigation, but he was asked, would you ever tell the president – would you ever give him progress reports like that? And he said no. So in terms of the Russia campaign investigation, the FBI was very eager to say that in the midst of this storm it hasn’t dropped a stitch.
MR. COSTA: One of the things we’re all trying to do is piece together, as the FBI and others do their investigations on Capitol Hill, what is the full extent of Trump and his organization and his orbits, relationship with Russia and Russian figures, Russian businesses? And, Erica, we got a little bit of a glimpse today when Trump’s tax lawyer, Sheri Dillon, said that he’s had a “very limited” financial relationship with Russia. Was that revealing at all?
MS. WERNER: Frankly, not particularly. It was – a fairly brief letter was released with no backup documentation and no evidence of any kind. It had very little value, in the opinion of many people. And it’s really difficult to overstate how many questions all of this raises for members of Congress and the degree to which this has really consumed Capitol Hill and totally derailed what is ostensibly President Trump’s agenda and the congressional agenda on health care and taxes. Instead, there is going to be a circus in the coming weeks – coming week, when Rosenstein is up there talking to the full Senate. There’s going to be another circus when they try to confirm a new FBI director. I mean, it’s just totally taken the oxygen out of the room and out of the agenda, and it’s all self-inflicted. And a number of lawmakers are really furious about this.
MR. COSTA: It’s totally erupting. When I was at the Capitol, Erica, I was struck by how, when senators would be on the record, they would tolerate Trump’s – President Trump’s behavior. They say he’s going to help us get health care and taxes and infrastructure. But privately, when you turn that recorder off, they say they hope this White House turns it around. They feel exposed because the White House puts out one story to the party, they sell the story, and then they have to backtrack it.
And I think we’re going to face more challenges in the coming days and weeks covering this administration. Part of President Trump’s tweetstorm from Friday morning included a strong suggestion that he might shut down White House press briefings. He tweeted: “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???” Later on Fox News, the president said, quote, “Unless I have them every two weeks and do it myself, we won’t have them. I think it’s a good idea.” Dan, press briefings are a traditional part of the presidency, are they not?
MR. BALZ: Absolutely, and I think – I would be astonished if the White House carries out the threat that the president seemed to put on the table today. I mean, they are part of the institution of the White House. They are depended upon by a lot of people, including people in the White House, to convey information as well as to answer questions. You know, they do become circuses sometimes. They are very difficult, often, for the person who’s at the podium who has to brief when things go bad, as they did this week. But to suggest that they should be removed because in one way or another this president moves so quickly that his spokespeople can’t keep up with him and therefore can’t always be accurate is a statement that kind of defies logic.
MR. COSTA: Margaret, who’s advising the president? Who’s influential on Comey? Because we hear he was unhappy over the weekend when he was at his golf club, and he comes back and it seems like many people at the White House are out of the loop about what the president is thinking and some of these big decisions.
MS. BRENNAN: Well, certainly his communications team was until virtually the last hour before it all became public. But from – I was up at Bedminster that weekend, and it was quiet, but apparently the president was stewing on this for quite some time and watching Sunday shows and really thinking about that testimony that James Comey gave the week before saying he was made nauseous at the idea that he perhaps tipped the election. And that sat with him, from what we are told. But in terms of who has the influence and ability to truly steer the president towards one direction, I’m not clear on that. Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, others are quite influential. But I don’t know that there is one person who the president does truly turn to as the voice of reason.
MR. BALZ: I was told by a couple of people today that he had voiced his displeasure with the Comey testimony before he went away for the weekend, so that there were people in the White House who knew he was stewing about that even as he went off to Bedminster to stew by himself.
MS. BRENNAN: And he must have been stewing from the previous testimony, when James Comey refused to back up his wiretapping claims.
MR. BALZ: Right.
MS. BRENNAN: So, I mean, there is a history of having some frustration, but it really boiled up.
MR. COSTA: And, Pete, real quick, 10 seconds. I’m told the president was so frustrated with the FBI for not going after leaks to the media that this in some ways prompted the Comey firing.
MR. WILLIAMS: No question about it. And he keeps bringing up leaks, and of course that’s been the sort of Republican rallying cry too, that let’s focus on the leaks and we’ll get to the other stuff later.
MR. COSTA: It’s going to be fascinating to watch. Leaks, the president angry, the president making decisions. What a week again.
And that’s it for tonight. But before we go, let me take a moment to thank all of you who emailed your personal health care stories to Washington Week. It was fascinating to read, and the response from across the country was simply incredible, as were your experiences and your concerns. We had planned, as you might imagine, to talk about health care this week before the Comey news broke, and we’ll get back to health care real soon. But keep sending us your thoughts. The email address is on the screen.
Our conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about many things, including what’s happening with the search for the new FBI director. We’ll hear from Pete on that. You can find that Friday night after 10 p.m., PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching. Enjoy your weekend. And to all the moms watching, have a happy Mother’s Day.