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The White House Is Still Changing Its Story on Comey's Firing

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: A Combination Photo Shows President Donald Trump and FBI Director James Comey in Washington
A combination photo shows President Donald Trump (L) in the House of Representatives in on February 28, 2017 Washington and FBI Director James Comey on July 7, 2016 in Washington. FileJim Lo Scalzo, Gary Cameron / 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.

Two weeks of changing White House explanations for firing Comey

After the last two weeks of jaw-dropping news coming from the nation’s capital, here’s maybe the most important question to ask: Why did President Trump fire FBI Director James Comey, and did the firing have anything to do with the FBI’s probe into Russia? Well, there’s been changing answers coming from the Trump White House.

  • May 9: In its announcement of firing Comey, the White House said it was due to how Comey handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation — and it was based on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. “President Trump acted based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement. "I cannot defend the Director's handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton's emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken," Rosenstein wrote to Trump.
  • May 10: The White House denies that Trump had already decided to fire Comey. Q: “Sarah, isn’t it true that the President had already decided to fire James Comey, and he asked the Justice Department to put together the rationale for that firing?” HUCKABEE SANDERS: “No.”
  • May 11: In his interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump said he firing Comey regardless of what Rosenstein recommended. “I was going to fire regardless of recommendation,” Trump said. And he suggested the Russia investigation was a reason behind the dismissal. “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.”
  • May 19: The New York Times reported that Trump, in the Oval Office on May 10, gave this account for his firing of Comey, according to a document summarizing the meeting. “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump said. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
  • May 19: In a statement responding to that New York Times article (and not denying it), the White House said Comey was interfering in its foreign policy with Russia. “By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said.
  • May 21: Speaking to ABC, National Security Adviser HR McMaster said he doesn’t remember “exactly what the president said” to the Russians in that May 10 meeting, but that the gist of it was that Comey “hamstrung” Trump’s ability to find areas of cooperation with the Russians.

To sum up: The Trump White House first said it fired Comey due to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s complaints about how Comey handled the Hillary email investigation; then Trump told Lester Holt that the Russia investigation was a factor; then Trump told the Russians, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off”; and then the White House explained that Trump was talking about Comey impeding its foreign policy with Russia. Got all of that? And by the way, former FBI Director Comey will testify to Congress — in public — after Memorial Day.

How the Trump drama imperils the GOP’s legislative agenda

Outside of why Trump fired Comey — and whether that served to obstruct the FBI’s probe into Russia (and the 2016 Trump campaign) — NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell writes that the entire saga could gum up the GOP’s legislative agenda. “With nearly daily revelations in the investigations into Russia's interference into last year's presidential election and potential ties to the Trump campaign, the president is beginning to lose clout on Capitol Hill. ‘I think the legislative agenda has pretty much ground to a halt until you get the Comey episode dealt with,’ said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. When asked why, he said, ‘Because you keep asking me about this and nothing else.’ Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, agrees. ‘There's no doubt that this cloud is impacting everything else, and I think the White House acknowledged that,’ said Rubio said on CNN's ‘State of the Union’ Sunday.”

Trump tempered his rhetoric in Sunday’s speech to Muslim World

Last Friday, we wrote that Trump’s speech to the Muslim World would be complicated due to his past rhetoric. Well, here are reviews of the address he delivered Sunday, per NBC News: “President Donald Trump tempered his rhetoric on the Muslim world in a speech given in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, earning praise from some corners and condemnation from others. His remarks in Riyadh tamped down the incendiary tenor Trump maintained during the 2016 campaign, which were pleasing to his base, but inflamed the opposition. The relatively even keel stayed on target as the president read carefully from his teleprompter and avoided off-the-cuff remarks that got him into trouble in the past.” More: “‘This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,’ Trump said. ‘This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it,’ Trump said. ‘This is a battle between good and evil.’”

Trump spends today and tomorrow in Israel

The dispatch from NBC’s Ali Vitali and Abigail Williams: “President Donald Trump arrived in Tel Aviv on Monday, hoping to help push forward what he's described as the ‘ultimate deal’ — peace between Israelis and Palestinians. ‘Welcome, our good friend,’ Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said while greeting Trump after he stepped off Air Force One.” NBC’s Lester Holt is in Israel to report on Trump’s trip there.

Will Trump end key Obamacare subsidies?

Back to domestic affairs, this news is pretty big: Trump might end key Obamacare subsidies, which could harm the individual health-insurance markets. Politico from Friday: “President Donald Trump has told advisers he wants to end payments of key Obamacare subsidies, a move that could send the health law's insurance markets into a tailspin, according to several sources familiar with the conversations.” And staying with health care, the Congressional Budget Office will release its score of the recently passed GOP health bill on Wednesday.

Debunked Seth Rich story shows how fake news really works

An important read from the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel: “Nearly one year later, Rich's death remains one of America's thousands of unsolved murders — and the focus of endless conspiracy theories, spread this past week by Fox News, alt-right social media, a local D.C. news station and the Russian embassy in Britain. The reemergence of the conspiracy theory this week, which did not lack for real news, revealed plenty about the fake news ecosystem … in the Trump era. It also happened to cause untold pain for the Rich family, which has sent a cease-and-desist letter to the so-called private investigator who led this dive back into the fever swamp.”

A reminder from NBC’s own reporting: “[A] current FBI official and a former one completely discount the Fox News claim that an FBI analysis of a computer belonging to Rich contained thousands of e-mails to and from WikiLeaks. Local police in Washington, D.C., never even gave the FBI Rich's laptop to analyze after his murder, according to the current FBI official. And a former law enforcement official with first-hand knowledge of Rich's laptop said the claim was incorrect. ‘It never contained any e-mails related to WikiLeaks, and the FBI never had it,’ the person said.”

In Montana, a lot more talk about health care than Russia

Finally, Thursday is the special congressional election in Montana between Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist. Over the weekend, Bernie Sanders campaigned for Quist, and here’s the observation from our colleague Beth Fouhy: “Speakers at Sanders/Quist rally in Montana so far are talking about AHCA/health care, not Russia probe.”