President Trump has fired James B. Comey as director of the FBI, citing Comey’s handling of the agency’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Through a Tuesday memo by deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein, the White House cited two key developments in the investigation.
The first was Comey’s news conference on July 5, 2016, when he announced that the FBI would not recommend criminal charges against Clinton for her use of a private email server as secretary of state. Rosenstein wrote in his memo: “The Director was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution. It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement. At most, the Director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors.”
The other was a letter Comey wrote to members of Congress on Oct. 28, 2016, notifying them that the FBI was resuming its email probe. Comey defended this decision, saying that not disclosing the information would have been to “conceal” the information. Rosenstein challenged Comey’s view, arguing that “quietly” opening an investigation is not “concealing anything; we are simply following the long-standing policy that we refrain from publicizing non-public information.”
Based on Rosenstein’s letter — in which he said Comey’s decisions were indefensible and damaged the credibility and reputation of the agency — Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommended Trump remove Comey. Trump dismissed Comey later that day.
This made us wonder: How does the decision by Trump and Sessions in May 2017 comport with their rhetoric about Comey’s handling of the investigation?
On July 5, Comey announced that Clinton was “extremely careless” in handling classified material, but investigators did not find intentional mishandling of classified information. Then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch had said she would accept Comey’s recommendations, amid criticisms of her private meeting with Bill Clinton while the investigation was still underway.
That evening, Trump said he was surprised by Comey’s recommendation, saying he believed Clinton had criminal intent. He implied the former president influenced the investigation by meeting with Lynch. But when asked whether he’d fire Lynch and Comey, Trump didn’t give a definitive answer.
Bill O’Reilly: “If you are elected president, are you going to fire Attorney General Lynch and Director Comey?”
Trump: “I don’t want to comment on that. I really don’t want to comment on that.”
Trump: “Because it’s inappropriate at this moment. But I will tell you that I believe that what happened over the last four or five days has been a total miscarriage in justice. And I really believe that what happened is shocking.” (Fox News, July 5, 2016)
Trump repeatedly criticized Lynch and Comey — but not for the reasons he’d use to fire Comey 10 months later. Instead, Trump thought Comey should have brought criminal charges against Clinton, tweeting it was a “#RiggedSystem.”
“We are going to get rid of these fools, these fools that are running our country. They are fools. We are not going to go four more years that even the FBI today talks so horribly about this person, to a point where you said how can you possibly say no charges? What they said and what he said today was so bad.” (Rally in North Carolina, July 5, 2016)
“The attorney general comes out and the attorney general says, no charges. That’s bribery, wouldn’t you say? That’s bribery. You’re not supposed — she said she’s going to reappoint the attorney general and the attorney general is waiting to make a determination as to whether or not she’s guilty and boy, was that a fast determination. Wow!” (Rally in Ohio, July 6, 2016)
Neither was Sessions immediately critical of Comey’s decision to make the announcement separate from Lynch. He said it was a “difficult case.” From his July 7, 2016, interview on Fox News with Greta Van Susteren:
Van Susteren: “Based on what you know, would you have recommended [to] the Department of Justice, like Comey? And I should say this, Director Comey used to be a U.S. attorney himself. But would you have recommended prosecution or not?”
Sessions: “Greta, honest to goodness, I couldn’t say because I haven’t studied the facts. The facts are very important in these cases. Director Comey is a skilled former prosecutor, now the head of the FBI. And I have respected him over the years. But this was a difficult case. I think it clearly could have gone the other way.”
Van Susteren: “I really appreciated his transparency. You know, I thought the American people wanted to know how he arrived at, what his opinion was and how he arrived at it. And I thought that, the other day, he spoke freely and then today answered questions for five hours. You know, I tip my hat to him for that.”
Sessions: “It’s not him that has the problem. It’s Hillary Clinton.”
Two weeks later, Sessions still didn’t criticize Comey for acting out of line. From his July 20, 2016, interview on Fox News:
Shannon Bream: “All right, so as a one-time prosecutor, is that the end of it? Is intent necessary? There’s been a big debate about that with these particular potential, you know, statutory violations that she’s been accused of, at least in the court of public opinion.”
Sessions: “Well, I’ve not studied the facts, but it does appear to me that she was aware that she should not use this system for classified information. And the director says she was extremely careless. Now, that’s very close to criminal intent. And there’s a misdemeanor charge that requires less intent. They could have brought that perhaps. They did not use the grand jury where the witnesses are brought before the grand jury and asked questions under oath on the record. That can strengthen a case, too. But really the problem is Hillary Clinton.”
Trump and Clinton officially became their parties’ presidential nominees by August 2016. Sessions was one of Trump’s most active surrogates, slamming Clinton over her use of a private server and contributions to the Clinton Foundation.
During a CNN interview on Aug. 23, 2016, Sessions would not answer whether he trusted Comey’s conclusions in the email investigation:
Alisyn Camerota: “Are you saying that you don’t trust director of the FBI James Comey’s conclusions?”
Sessions: “Well, I’m saying that things keep coming out. This was a recent discovery in some of the later emails it seems to me.”
Camerota: “Well, the FBI had these emails. These were as we understand, that these were something that they found from the server, from that had been deleted that were part of what the Clintons claimed were personal emails. But the FBI has had these. Are you saying that you don’t trust James Comey?”
Sessions: “What I’m saying is that the evidence indicates to me that this should be fully investigated. I cannot say that Mr. Comey has not completed a full investigation. But it seems like he has not. And I think there are — there is a cloud over this. And just because he might conclude that there’s not a chargeable offense does not indicate that there’s no wrong doing. This is not healthy.”
Trump continued to complain about Comey — but again, not for the reason he’d use later to fire Comey. During an Oct. 13, 2016, rally in West Palm Beach, Fla., Trump claimed FBI employees are “embarrassed and ashamed” of what Comey had done, because he wasn’t harsh enough on Clinton: “He stated many things but it’s far more, and he knows that. And yet after reading all of these times where she’s so guilty, he let her off the hook.”
Then, on Oct. 28, Comey sent a letter to congressional leaders informing them that the agency found new information relating to the Clinton email case and needed to assess whether they are relevant.
This time, Trump and Sessions agreed with Comey’s decision. Seven months later, both men would blame Comey for this decision and use it to justify his dismissal.
Trump: “And I have to give the FBI credit, that was so bad what happened originally, and it took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made, in light of the kind of opposition he had, where they’re trying to protect her from criminal prosecution, you know that. It took a lot of guts, I really disagreed with him, I was not his fan. But I’ll you what he did, he brought back his reputation — he brought it back. He’s got to hang tough, because a lot of people want him to do the wrong thing. What he did was the right thing.” (Rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., Oct. 31, 2016)
Sessions: “He had an absolute duty, in my opinion, 11 days or not, to come forward with the new information that he has and let the American people know that, too.” (“Lou Dobbs Tonight,” Oct. 28, 2016)
However, in that same “Lou Dobbs Tonight” interview, Sessions said it was the attorney general’s job to decide whether or not to prosecute — not Comey’s. This is consistent with his view in May 2017.
Sessions: “Well, it did appear to me there was sufficient evidence to bring a change. The prosecutor — really, the FBI director, which is odd — the decision really should be made whether to prosecute or not by the attorney general, not the investigating officer, like the FBI director.”
Dobbs: “Yes, we should remind everyone, Senator, that Loretta Lynch, the attorney general, had said she will follow the recommendation of the director of the FBI.”
Sessions: “That’s a total abandonment of her responsibility, of course. The FBI director can make a recommendation to her, but she’s the one that decides whether or not to bring a case before the grand jury. So I didn’t like that. I didn’t like the meeting that you mentioned on the airplane that put Comey in a position that he had to make this announcement. He gave some facts when he made it. You could tell he probably wasn’t happy with it.”
Nov. 1 to 7, 2016
Two days before the Nov. 8 election, Sessions again said Comey did the right thing by disclosing new evidence. But he again said the attorney general should have been the one to make the final call. However, in this case, a special prosecutor would be necessary because of Lynch’s meeting with Bill Clinton, Sessions said, in a Nov. 6, 2016, interview on Fox News. (The day before, Sessions, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Frank Keating co-wrote a letter about this.)
Sessions: “You know, FBI Director Comey did the right thing when he found new evidence. He had no choice but to report to the American Congress where he had under oath testified. The investigation was over. He had to correct that and say, this investigation is ongoing now. I’m sure it’s significant or else he wouldn’t have announced that.”
After the Nov. 8, 2016, election
As president-elect, Trump equivocated on whether he would fire Comey. From his Nov. 13, 2016, interview on “60 Minutes”:
Lesley Stahl: “FBI director James Comey. Are you going to ask for his resignation?”
Trump: “I think that I would rather not comment on that yet. I don’t — I haven’t made up my mind. I respect him a lot. I respect the FBI a lot. I think —”
Stahl: “Even though they leak so much?”
Trump: “Well, there’s been a lot of leaking, there’s no question about that. But I would certainly like to talk to him. And see him. This is a tough time for him. And I would like to talk to him before I’d answer a question like that.”
Stahl: “Sounds like you’re not sure.”
Trump: “Well, sure, I’m not sure. I’d want to see, you know, he may have had very good reasons for doing what he did.”
After that, Trump sent mixed signals about Comey, in interviews and on Twitter. Here’s a sampling of his various statements. (Our colleague Jenna Johnson chronicled Trump’s love-hate relationship with Comey.)
For example, here’s an April 12, 2017, interview with Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo:
Bartiromo: “For example, was it a mistake not to ask Jim Comey to step down from the FBI at the outset of your presidency? Is it too late now to ask him to step down?”
Trump: “No, it’s not too late, but, you know, I have confidence in him. We’ll see what happens. You know, it’s going to be interesting.”
But then Trump changed his mind by May 2, 2017, when he tweeted: “FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds! The phony Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?”
(An “official timeline” issued by the White House suggests Trump was “strongly inclined” to remove him after watching Comey’s testimony on May 3.)
Exactly one week later, Trump fired Comey.
The Pinocchio Test
To justify Comey’s firing, the administration cited two reasons: Comey shouldn’t have announced on July 5 that the Clinton investigation should be closed without prosecution, and he didn’t necessarily need to disclose on Oct. 28 about the new development in the case.
Trump and Sessions both criticized the outcome of the investigation announced on July 5 but did not immediately criticize him for “usurping” Lynch’s authority as they did in May 2017. However, Sessions ultimately did criticize the chain of command in the process. There’s no clear flip-flop by both men.
As for Comey’s Oct. 28 decision, both Trump and Sessions defended it in the following days. But as president-elect and into his presidency, Trump remained skeptical of Comey’s judgment throughout the Clinton probe. By May 2017, the two men found Comey’s Oct. 28 letter no longer necessary. This is inconsistent with the times they defended Comey for the letter.
While there are inconsistencies in both men’s rhetoric compared with their decisions on May 2017, both have remained skeptical of Comey’s judgment and role throughout the process. In the absence of a “Half Flop” rating like PolitiFact has, we will not rate this claim.
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