President Donald Trump and his aides scrambled on Wednesday to justify his surprise firing of FBI Director James Comey, with Trump crying foul on Democrats who had previously slammed Comey for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
Trump on Tuesday abruptly fired Comey, the top law enforcement official leading a federal probe into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russian officials and a key ally in similar congressional investigations.
While Trump and his Justice Department cited Comey’s unusual, public treatment of the Clinton probe as the reason for his ouster, Democratic critics called it a “cover-up” and “Nixonian,” and demanded a special prosecutor for the Russia investigation.
Trump fumed at the backlash, tweeting late Tuesday that “Cryin’” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer acted “so indignant” after Comey’s termination despite stating that he had lost confidence in the FBI director.
The president followed up by dismissing another Democratic senator, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, suggesting “Richie” was responsible for “one of the greatest military frauds in U.S. history” and “cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness” once he was caught.
“He should be the one who is investigated for his acts,” Trump declared.
Trump also tried to drive home the White House’s stated justification — that he simply accepted the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, that Comey had botched the Clinton probe and was incapable of properly handling the job.
“Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike,” Trump explained via Twitter on Wednesday morning. “When things calm down, they will be thanking me!”
The president charged that “Democrats have said some of the worst things about James Comey, including the fact that he should be fired, but now they play so sad!”
The flurry of tweets from Trump added to the chaotic messaging that has emerged from the White House since news of Comey’s firing emerged late Tuesday afternoon. The justification is particularly problematic because Trump celebrated Comey’s decision to reopen the Clinton probe just days before the election — a decision that Clinton has said contributed to her surprise loss.
On Wednesday morning, Trump’s aides hit the cable networks — much like the night before — to defend the president’s decision.
Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president, engaged in a contentious interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, as she praised the president as a leader who took “decisive, resolute actions” once faced with evidence.
Conway cited past Comey criticism from Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, suggesting it’s hypocritical of them to take issue with the firing of a man they condemned for interfering in the presidential election with the letter reopening the probe into Clinton’s private email server 11 days before the election.
“Yet now they want him to be a martyr,” Conway said.
“You have to have confidence in the impartiality and the non-politicization of the FBI, of the bureau, and Mr. Rosenstein apparently concluded that’s not the case and put forth his recommendations to the president,” she added.
Deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also pushed the idea that there’s been bipartisan dissatisfaction with Comey.
“Democrats and Republicans alike have been calling for him to step down,” Sanders said on MSNBC. “I think we’re at a place where the FBI has — the reputation of this department has been under major scrutiny, taken a big hit. We need to restore credibility back there, and I think that has to come from a new leader and a new director.”
Talking with reporters on Capitol Hill, Vice President Mike Pence pushed back against the idea of a special prosecutor and forcefully denied the ongoing FBI Russia probe played a role in Comey’s firing.
“That’s not what this is about,” he said.
Trump tweeted that Comey’s replacement will be “someone who will do a far better job, bringing back the spirit and the prestige of the FBI.” The White House said in a statement Tuesday that the search to replace the FBI director will begin immediately.
The role is a 10-year term and must be confirmed by the Senate, meaning Comey’s firing could jeopardize Trump’s legislative agenda as his administration vets candidates and the Senate begins the confirmation process.
The Senate is working on a health care bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, and Trump has signaled a tax overhaul as his next priority. It’s unclear how much of a priority replacing Comey will be versus fulfilling campaign pledges to repeal Obamacare or slash taxes, especially given that the new FBI director could potentially be involved in the Trump-Russia probe.
Conway reminded the American people on CNN that no one has publicly confirmed any collusion between Trump associates and Russians, a line Cuomo dismissed as a “talking point.”
“It’s not a talking point,” Conway shot back. “It’s a seven-month distraction.”
The counselor to the president, however, was mum on the White House’s timeline to replace Comey, intimating that the question is “inappropriate.”
“I’m not gonna answer that question because the president of the United States confers with his team on any number of personnel decisions, and it’s up to him to have the timing. You wanna question the timing of when he fires, when he hires,” she said. “It’s inappropriate. He’ll do it when he wants to, just like he fired FBI Director Comey when he was faced with evidence that was unignorable now.”