In firing FBI Director James B. Comey, President Trump may have hoped to bring the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election under control. Instead, as reaction in Washington spread on Wednesday, the move seemed to carry a large risk of making his troubles worse.
Trump has both privately and publicly seethed for weeks about the investigation into whether anyone connected with his campaign had cooperated with Russian efforts to influence the election.
He was angered further last week that Comey would not publicly back his claim that no evidence of collusion exists.
“The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax” and a “taxpayer funded charade,” he tweeted on Monday, the day White House officials now say he first discussed firing Comey with Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions and Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein.
But if the goal was to get the investigation over with, firing Comey probably moved matters in the wrong direction, according to both Republican and Democratic former White House officials.
“In the short term it certainly fans the flames,” said Ed Rogers, a longtime Republican strategist and aide to former Republican presidents.
In an email lament circulated among prominent Republicans, A.B. Culvahouse Jr., former Reagan White House counsel and head of Trump’s vice presidential search effort, said the firing “both prolongs the FBI/DOJ investigation and undermines the credibility of the Trump campaign's denials of no conspiracy with Putin.”
“We could be talking about Russian hacking in the mid-terms at this rate,” he wrote.
Ironically, Comey’s track record for defying his bosses and charting an independent course — precisely the attributes that the White House cited in his dismissal — made him potentially very valuable to Trump.
Susan Hennessey, an expert in national security law at the Brookings Institution who has been closely tracking the Russia investigation, said Trump appeared to have lost sight of what would have been the best-case ending to the public investigation — clearing those who are innocent and allowing the White House to move forward.
“It’s apparent to everyone except perhaps the president that this story is not just going to go away,” she said. Although high-profile investigations can be costly to an administration, they’re often the only way to “dispense with the matter publicly” and “provide the level of certainty that the American people need.”
Comey, with his long service under presidents of both parties and his wide support among rank-and-file FBI agents, could have provided credible closure at the end of an investigation, especially if the inquiry were to clear most White House officials.
That’s why Hennessey and others predicted that eventually, despite current resistance, the administration would probably have to accept some form of special counsel or independent investigative commission.
“These issues are serious enough that I think eventually we’ll get there,” said Lee Hamilton, a former congressman and co-chairman of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Will it be next week? Will it be six months from now? I don’t know when, but I don’t think Trump has helped himself by firing Comey,” Hamilton said.
“He’s trying to get away from this. It’s driving him nuts. It’s eating away at his presidency day by day, and he’s trying to stop it. But my view is he’s not going to succeed.”
Demands for a special prosecutor of some form probably will play a major role in Senate hearings over a nominee to replace Comey.
So far, the administration has staunchly resisted that idea, and it has kept the backing of the people it needs most, especially Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“Today we’ll no doubt hear calls for a new investigation,” McConnell said in a Senate speech Wednesday morning. That “can only serve to impede the current work being done.”
So long as McConnell stands firm, he could probably block any move in Congress to pass a new law creating an independent counsel of the type that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan administration and Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades and perjury during his administration.
The remaining route to a special counsel would be for Rosenstein to appoint one, using his authority as the overseer of the Russia investigation because Sessions has stepped aside over his close links to Trump during the campaign. That was the process used when a special counsel was named in the George W. Bush administration to investigate who in the White House had disclosed the identity of Valerie Plame, a covert CIA agent.
Much as Sessions resisted for several weeks before eventually deciding to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, “we will see the same cycle play out with Rod Rosenstein,” Hennessey predicted.
“We’re on an inevitable path toward things like special prosecutors” because otherwise “we’re facing a legitimacy crisis,” she said.
In trying to fend that off, the White House suffered Wednesday from a problem that already has surfaced several times during Trump’s tenure: The president’s decision appeared to have outrun his staff’s preparation.
White House officials, nearly all of whom were caught by surprise by Comey’s firing, were ill-equipped to explain Trump’s action, offering conflicting accounts of when he made the decision and what had precipitated it.
On Tuesday night, for example, several hours after the firing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that "no one from the White House" had ordered Rosenstein to review Comey’s conduct.
“It was all him,” Spicer said. “That was a DoJ decision.”
On Wednesday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who delivered the daily White House news briefing, offered a very different account, one that appeared to put Trump in the role of the motivating force.
“The president, over the last several months, lost confidence in Director Comey,” Sanders said. She went on to say that when Rosenstein and Sessions came to the White House on Monday, “the topic came up, and they asked to speak with the president, and that's how it moved forward.”
Trump “asked them for their recommendation” then “asked them to put that recommendation in writing,” she said. Rosenstein’s memo castigating Comey was dated Tuesday.
Those sorts of inconsistencies dismayed Republicans even as they heightened suspicions among Democrats.
“I am bewildered about the sloppy handling of this at the White House. It makes Republicans’ shoulders slump,” said Rogers, the Republican strategist.
On the Democratic side, prominent figures insisted Trump’s true motive had been to undermine the Russia investigation, and not, as claimed, Comey’s fumbling of the 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices.
“If the administration truly had objections to the way Director Comey handled the Clinton investigation, they would've had them the minute the president got into office,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said in a floor speech Wednesday morning.
At least some Republicans seemed troubled, as well.
“I've spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey's firing. I just can't do it,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) tweeted Tuesday night.
Times staff writers Jackie Calmes and Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.
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