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The White House's Explanation for Firing Comey Crumbles

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter
Image: White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders holds a press briefing in Washington
White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders holds a press briefing at the White House in Washington on May 10, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin LamarqueKevin Lamarque / Reuters

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter

The White House’s explanation for firing Comey crumbles

In the last 48 hours, the Trump White House’s initial explanations for firing former FBI Director James Comey — as well as other details it provided — have crumbled.

First, the White House suggested that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s recommendation served as the basis for Comey’s ouster. But President Trump contradicted that in his interview with NBC’s Lester Holt. “I was going to fire regardless of recommendation,” Trump said. The White House also initially said it was Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation — not Russia — as the reason behind the firing. But in the interview with Holt, Trump mentioned Russia as a rationale. “When I decided to [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.”

In addition, the Trump White House said that Comey had lost support of the FBI’s rank-and-file. But that’s not what Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe told Congress yesterday. “I can tell you also that Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day,” McCabe said. And then there was Trump’s statement to Holt that Comey wanted to have dinner with Trump to keep his job, and that Comey told the president he wasn’t under investigation at that dinner. But as NBC’s Ken Dilanian and Pete Williams report, citing current and former FBI officials close to Comey: “The January dinner meeting between the two men … was requested by the White House. And the former senior FBI official says Comey would never have told the president he was not under investigation.”

A White House’s credibility is a terrible thing to waste

This isn’t the first time, of course, that Trump and his team have been caught in contradictions, inaccurate statements, and outright whoppers. (Remember the inaugural’s crowd size? Or Trump’s claim that Barack Obama wiretapped him?) But it’s amazing on a matter that’s so important -- and that was executed by the White House on its own timetable -- that the Trump White House can’t tell a straight story here. So what happens when there’s a story outside the White House’s control (like war, natural disaster, or another kind of tragedy)? Those are times when a president and White House will need a deep reservoir of credibility with the American public. But what happens when that reservoir is empty? Additionally, what now happens to Vice President Mike Pence’s credibility? He has been the good soldier, but his earlier insistence that the Rosenstein recommendation served as a basis for Comey’s ouster hurts him. And Pence often has been the administration’s best advocate and messenger. By the way, here’s what Trump just tweeted this morning: “As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!”

How isn’t that Trump-Comey dinner as problematic as the Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting?

For everyone who was outraged — justifiably so — over Bill Clinton’s tarmac meeting with former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, how is this story not worse, as our colleague Joe Scarborough has noted?

The New York Times: “As they ate [at their January dinner], the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and the crowd sizes at Mr. Trump’s rallies. The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him. Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, Mr. Comey has recounted to others, he told Mr. Trump that he would always be honest with him, but that he was not ‘reliable’ in the conventional political sense.” More: “The White House says this account is not correct. And Mr. Trump, in an interview on Thursday with NBC, described a far different dinner conversation with Mr. Comey in which the director asked to have the meeting and the question of loyalty never came up. It was not clear whether he was talking about the same meal, but they are believed to have had only one dinner together.”

But again, if Trump’s campaign is under investigation — and if Trump himself is asking Comey if he himself is under investigation — how isn’t that as bad as, or even worse than, the Clinton-Lynch meeting? “President Donald Trump's statement that he discussed the FBI's Russia investigation with former Director James Comey has raised red flags among legal experts who said such conversations would be improper,” NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald writes.

NBC|SurveyMonkey poll: 54% think Trump’s firing of Comey was inappropriate

“A majority of Americans — 54 percent — think that President Donald Trump's abrupt dismissal of FBI Director James Comey was not appropriate, while 46 percent think that Comey was fired due to the Russia investigation, according to results from a new NBC News|SurveyMonkey poll. A strong majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaners (84 percent) and Independents who do not lean toward either party (61 percent) say that the firing was not appropriate. Among Republicans and Republican-leaners, 79 percent approve of the move, while 13 percent say it was not appropriate. Overall, 46 percent of Americans think Trump's decision to fire Comey was related to the Russia investigation. About a quarter, 24 percent, believe Comey's removal was due to his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and 22 percent said it was something else.”

Also from yesterday’s Trump-Holt interview: Here were other parts of Trump’s interview with NBC’s Lester Holt

  • On Russia’s hacking in the 2016 election: “I want to get to the bottom. If Russia hacked, if Russia did anything having to do with our election I want to know about it.”
  • On why it took him 18 days to fire Michael Flynn: “Because my White House Counsel, Don McGahn, came back to me and did not sound like an emergency of many it didn't make it sound like he was you know and [former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates] actually didn't make it sound that way either in the hearings the other day.”

How both Democrats and Republicans are trying to improve on their performance from 2016

Largely lost in all of the focus of the Trump’s White House first four months in office is how Democrats and Republicans are working to improve on their shortcomings from 2016. Here’s a video from Ohio gubernatorial candidate Nan Whaley (D), who’s the mayor of Dayton, OH: “Ohio — they call us flyover country. The Rust Belt. Tell us our best days are behind us. For too many in Washington and far too many in the statehouse, Ohioans are invisible… But I see you. I see you because I know, firsthand, the challenges facing Ohio.”

And here’s a new video from New Republican, a Super PAC chaired by Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), who very well might run for Senate in 2018. “Old laws and regulations are shutting down opportunity. Today, we are closing more businesses than we open. It’s time for Washington to open up our economy — for everyone,” says the video that focuses on young voters and Latinos.

One of the biggest stories of 2018 and 2020 will be which party does a better job of improving on its shortcomings — rural white voters for Democrats, young and minority voters for Republicans.