WASHINGTON – White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders vigorously defended President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, saying Hillary Clinton would have fired him “immediately” if she had been elected president.
Asserting that Comey had committed legal “atrocities,” Sanders called criticism from Democrats who had been howling for his dismissal the “purest form of hypocrisy.”
During Wednesday’s daily White House briefing, the deputy press secretary made the following points regarding Trump’s firing of Comey the day before:
- Hypocrisy from Democrats who had called for his firing.
- The president had completely lost confidence in the FBI director.
- Comey publicly admitted to breaking the Justice Department chain of command.
- The administration doesn’t want the Russia investigation stalled; it wants it finished.
And, early Wednesday evening, the White House released this timeline of events that led to Comey’s firing:
- The president, over the last several months, lost confidence in Director Comey.
- After watching Director Comey’s testimony last Wednesday, the president was strongly inclined to remove him.
- On Monday, the president met with the attorney general and the deputy attorney general, and they discussed reasons for removing the director.
- The next day, Tuesday, May 9, the deputy attorney general sent his written recommendation to the attorney general and the attorney general sent his written recommendation to the president.
What follows is the case the White House made for the firing in detail, as expressed by the deputy press secretary during the Wednesday briefing.
“Most of the people that are declaring war today were the very ones that were begging for Director Comey to be fired,” Sanders asserted.
“Frankly, I think it’s startling that Democrats aren’t celebrating,” added the deputy press secretary.
She said she was surprised at the intensity of the negative reaction because so many Republicans and Democrats had repeatedly called for Comey’s removal.
However, she also observed, “I don’t think it matters what this president says, you’re going to have Democrats come out and fight him every single step of the way.”
Asked if Trump had anticipated the Democratic backlash, Sanders wondered aloud, “How could he have, considering the fact that most of the people that are declaring war today were the very ones that were begging for Director Comey to be fired?”
That’s when she added: “If Hillary Clinton had won the election – which, thank God, she didn’t – but if she had, and she had been in the same position, she would have fired Comey immediately, and the very Democrats that are criticizing the president today would be dancing in the streets celebrating.
“So it’s just, I think, the purest form of hypocrisy.”
“The president had lost confidence in Comey from the day he was elected,” maintained Sanders.
She said President Trump wasn’t sure that he shouldn’t have fired him on his very first day in office. Still, the president did not regret not doing that because he wanted to give Comey a chance. But things got progressively worse.
“The president, over the last several months, lost confidence in Director Comey,” the spokeswoman explained, adding that he wasn’t the only one.
“The DOJ (Department of Justice) lost confidence in Director Comey. Bipartisan members of Congress made it clear that they had lost confidence in Director Comey. And most importantly, the rank-and-file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director.”
John Roberts of Fox News asked: “When was it the president lost (total) confidence in James Comey? What was the tipping point?”
“I think it’s been an erosion of confidence,” Sanders replied. “I think that Director Comey has shown over the last several months and, frankly, over the last year, a lot of missteps and mistakes.
“And, certainly, as you’ve seen from many of the comments from Democratic members, including Sen. Schumer, they didn’t think he should be there. They thought he should be gone.”
In answering Hallie Jackson of NBC News about a timeline of events that led Trump to finally fire Comey, Sanders reiterated that “he’d been considering letting Director Comey go since the day he was elected.”
The spokeswoman explained that, contrary to media reports, the president did not ask subordinates to come up with an excuse to fire Comey.
She said Trump had a meeting recently ago with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein during which they expressed their concerns about the FBI director.
Trump asked them to put those concerns in writing. Rosenstein made a persuasive argument for the firing of Comey. After consulting a few key advisers, the president decided to fire him.
Minutes after Comey was fired on Tuesday, WND published the full text of Rosenstein’s three-page memo laying out the case against the FBI director.
Rosenstein has served in the DOJ for three decades under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Chain of Command
Sanders said the last straw for the president occurred when Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last Wednesday.
She described it as the first time the FBI director publicly and openly admitted to violating the Justice Department chain of command by deciding for himself not to recommend pressing charges against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for mishandling classified information on her private email server, rather that leaving that decision to then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
“Director Comey made a pretty startling revelation that he had essentially taken a stick of dynamite and thrown it into the Department of Justice by going around the chain of command when he decided to take steps without talking to the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General when holding a press conference and telling them that he would not let them know what he was going to say, and that is simply not allowed,” explained Sanders.
She said that was the analysis of Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, “who everybody across the board has unequivocally said, this guy is a man of upstanding character and essentially the gold standard at the Department of Justice.”
Sanders said Rosenstein’s memo on Comey “outlined the basic, just, atrocities, and circumventing the chain of command in the Department of Justice.”
When the president saw that analysis in the memo, she said, “I think that was the final catalyst.”
“Any person of a legal mind in authority knows what a big deal that is, particularly in the Department of Justice, particularly for somebody like the Deputy Attorney General, who has been part of the Justice Department for 30 years and is such a respected person. When [President Trump] saw that, he had to speak up on that action, and I think that was the final catalyst.”
Sanders said Trump had been “contemplating” firing Comey for a while, but Roesnstein’s argument was, she thought, was “the final piece that moved the president to make that quick and decisive action yesterday.”
Reporters from the mainstream hammered Sanders with questions implying the president fired Comey to try to quash the FBI’s investigation into whether the Russian government influenced the 2016 presidential election.
The main gist of Sanders’ responses was that just the opposite was the case: The administration doesn’t want the investigation stalled; President Trump wants it to proceed so it can be wrapped up.
NPR’s Mara Liasson pointedly asked, “Going forward, does the president want the Department of Justice to shut down what he’s called a ‘taxpayer-funded charade’ investigation?”
Sanders replied, “He wants them to continue with whatever they see appropriate and see fit, just the same as he’s encouraged the House and Senate committees to continue any ongoing investigations.”
She continued: “Look, the bottom line is any investigation that was happening on Monday is still happening today. That hasn’t changed. And, in fact, we encourage them to complete this investigation so we can put it behind us and we can continue to see exactly what we’ve been saying for nearly a year: There’s no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“And we’d love for that to be completed so that we can all move on and focus on the things that, frankly, I think most of Americans are concerned with.”
Sanders even portrayed Comey as an impediment to that investigation.
“And another reason, frankly, for Director Comey to be out of the way is so that they can have somebody leading this effort (is someone) that everybody across the board has respect and confidence in. Nobody wants this to be finished and completed more than us so that we can focus on what we need to do here.”
Next FBI director?
Sanders said there are several individuals being considered to replace Comey, and the first step will be for the Justice Department to determine an interim director.
“I would say that he’s not ruling anything out at this point. But again, as of today, the Department of Justice is handling the first step in this process.”
She added that the president did meet behind closed doors Wednesday afternoon with acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe at the White House.