WASHINGTON ― After attacking former President Barack Obama and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates earlier this week, the Trump White House tried out its scorched-earth tactics against James Comey on Wednesday, going as far as accusing the just-fired FBI director of committing “atrocities” at the agency.
“I think it’s been an erosion of confidence,” deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders said during the daily press briefing. “I think that Director Comey has shown over the last several months, and frankly, the last year, a lot of missteps and mistakes.”
The three recipients of the White House’s reproach share one commonality: their roles in the probe of Russian interference in last year’s presidential race and the Trump campaign’s possible collusion.
The Trump administration blamed Obama for not stripping Trump’s first national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, of his security clearance even though Russia had paid him to deliver a speech in 2015. Yates was fired as acting attorney general shortly after she informed Trump’s White House that Flynn had spoken falsely when he said he hadn’t had conversations with Russian officials during the transition period.
Comey was abruptly fired in the late afternoon on Tuesday, despite the numerous times President Donald Trump and members of his staff said they supported him over the not-quite four months of Trump’s presidency.
On Wednesday, though, Sanders said that Trump had wanted to replace Comey pretty much from the start. “Frankly, he’d been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected,” she said.
Yet Trump said little that would indicate that until his actual letter firing Comey.
Trump did, in fact, criticize Comey last summer ― not because of his unusual July 5 news conference criticizing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but for his failure to press criminal charges against her. On Oct. 28, when Comey sent a letter to Congress explaining that he was re-opening the investigation against Clinton, Trump praised him for doing so, despite criticism from Democrats.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, however, Trump and his aides turned those arguments on their head. Now, they claim, Trump was angry at Comey for precisely what he’d praised him for earlier. Sanders called Comey’s actions “atrocities” ― a word normally reserved for mass murder and other war crimes.
“He had essentially taken a stick of dynamite and thrown it into the Department of Justice by going around the chain of command,” Sanders said, describing Comey’s decision to lay out all the bad things Clinton had done at the July news conference in which he also announced he would not be charging her.
Many Democrats, and even some Republicans, said Trump’s new point of view on the matter is based on his desire to quash the FBI investigation entirely ― a perspective supported by published reports describing Trump getting increasingly angry that Comey was continuing with the Russia investigation.
Sanders dismissed that hypothesis, claiming that Trump wants the investigation to go forward so he can be cleared. He sees Comey’s actions differently because he is now president, she said.
“I think you’re looking at two very different positions. The president was wearing a different hat at that time. He was a candidate, not the president,” Sanders said.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia worked to hurt Clinton and help Trump during the 2016 election, in part by stealing documents and emails from the Democratic Party and Clinton’s campaign chairman and then releasing embarrassing ones on a near daily basis in the final weeks of the campaign through WikiLeaks.
Trump praised WikiLeaks for doing this in almost every campaign appearance he made in October, and for months claimed that it was impossible to know who had stolen the emails.
The FBI and committees in both the House and Senate are investigating Russia’s meddling and the possibility that the Trump campaign collaborated with it ― although with Comey’s firing, the status of the FBI probe is now unclear.