President Trump is a selfish liar, and a vain one. Those traits, together, can cause chaos, as they did on Thursday, when, in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump undermined his own alibi for firing the F.B.I. director, James Comey. The official story had been that Trump was moved to act on Tuesday only after the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, and the Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, came to him with concerns about Comey’s competence—specifically, his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. Trump’s letter firing Comey said that he had “accepted their recommendation.” Vice-President Mike Pence and other dependents repeated this story all day Wednesday, with Pence portraying the President as solemnly resolved to follow the best advice he had, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy press secretary, throwing in some smears of Comey, who she said had committed “atrocities” while at the F.B.I. and was disliked by its rank and file. Speaking to Holt, Trump stood by the smears: “Look, he’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander”; “I just want somebody that’s competent.” But, when Holt asked him about heeding Sessions and Rosenstein, Trump seemed to bristle. Could Holt think that he, Trump, needed to hear what anyone had to say—that he had his mind changed by subordinates?
“What I did was, I was going to fire Comey,” Trump said. “My decision.” One could almost see the thought bubble over his head: Me, me, me.
holt: Because your letter, you said, “I—I accepted their recommendation,” so you had already made the decision.
trump: Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.
Trump also said that although Rosenstein was a “very smart guy,” he, Trump, was actually thinking about something not mentioned at all in his memo “when I decided to just do it”—that is, to fire Comey: “I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story; it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.” His aides, needless to say, had spent the day saying that Comey’s firing had nothing to do with Russia.
One might pause to note that, according to a Wall Street Journal report published on Thursday, Rosenstein has told associates that he was distressed at what he feels is the White House’s misrepresentation of his role, and “hinted he couldn’t work in an environment where facts weren’t accurately reported.” Although Sanders, like Trump, talked about Rosenstein’s “clear and strong recommendation” that Trump should fire Comey, Rosenstein’s letter, as much as it condemns Comey for his handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation, contains no such recommendation. Instead, it leaves open the possibility that some sort of public confession in which Comey would “admit his errors” might be an alternative, in terms of restoring “trust.” Maybe if Rosenstein could come up with some suggestions for the right kind of grandstand—the penitential costume Comey would wear as he approached Trump’s desk, the lighting in the Oval Office—the President would have gone for it, and said that that was his idea, too. (This week, Trump also took credit for coming up with the phrase “priming the pump,” which has been a standard economics metaphor for more than a century and was heavily promoted by John Maynard Keynes.) A ritual of humiliation would have fit well with the spirit of the request that Trump made to Comey, according to a Times report from Thursday night, which cited people close to Comey: at a dinner, Trump asked the F.B.I. director for an overt pledge of loyalty. He didn’t get it. It’s not something that F.B.I. directors are supposed to give.
Instead, in both the letter that Trump sent to Comey and in his interview with Holt, Trump claimed that he got something else from Comey: an assurance that he was not under investigation. Trump doesn’t bother to conceal that he regarded such an assurance as something of a condition of employment. The letter says that “while I appreciate you informing me, on three separate times, that I am not under investigation,” Trump was terminating Comey anyway. In other words, those three assurances—Trump told Holt that he got them at their dinner and in two phone calls—were not enough to counterbalance Comey’s flaws. And Trump emphasized to Holt—and to anyone watching who might want a position in his Administration—that he had asked Comey the question in the context of an exchange in which Comey asked to keep his job. (“He wanted to stay on as the F.B.I. head. And I said I’ll, you know, consider,” Trump told Holt.) Comey, Trump said, had then told him that he was in the clear, “which I knew anyway.” Trump would rather raise the possibility that he’d had an improper, if not actually illegal, conversation with Comey than leave anyone with the impression that he couldn’t instruct the people who worked for him to do anything he desired. (He added an additional threat in a tweet Friday morning, in which he said that Comey had “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”) Perhaps if Comey had told him what he wanted to hear thirty times, instead of three, he would still have the job. Or if he’d told him that at all; there is reason to doubt that he did, at least in such unequivocal terms.
As Holt, for example, delicately put it to the President, Comey had “given sworn testimony that there is an ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign and possible collusion with the Russian government. You were the centerpiece of the Trump campaign.” “I know that I’m not under investigation,” Trump replied. “Me. Personally. I’m not talking about campaigns. I’m not talking about anything else.” Trump seems to treat the idea of being investigated the same way that he regards the idea of losing money. He is not personally being investigated; he never personally declared bankruptcy—only some of his various businesses did.
He also doesn’t care much about the self-respect of his communications staff. In another Friday-morning tweet, Trump wondered if he shouldn’t just do away with press briefings, in favor of written communiqués. Meanwhile, Sean Spicer has apparently been swept up in his Naval Reserve duties and hasn’t been seen since Tuesday, when, in what might be called the Night of the Long Shrubbery, he reportedly hid behind some bushes on the White House grounds in order to avoid going on camera to talk about the Comey firing. In his stead, Sarah Huckabee Sanders has been showing off her ability to shift from one false account to another. NBC News released excerpts of the Holt interview midday on Thursday, so she was asked why so many things that she’d said the day before turned out not to be true. She also had to deal with the testimony of Andrew McCabe, now the acting F.B.I. director, who, when asked about her declaration that ordinary F.B.I. officers had greeted Comey’s firing as one greets a liberation, said that Comey actually enjoyed broad support in the Bureau. McCabe added that he personally regarded serving with Comey as the honor of his life. Sanders countered that many F.B.I. officers of her acquaintance had told her the opposite, which she treated as definitive despite adding, with a note of pleased and oblivious self-contradiction, “And I don’t even know that many people in the F.B.I.!” She answered questions about the propriety of the Trump-Comey dinner by seeming to cite lawyers she’d seen comment on television. (“There were multiple attorneys that came on after.”) In a way, she is the perfect Trump spokesperson. Her incoherent answers revolved around the greatness of Trump and the perfidy of his enemies. When Jonathan Karl, of ABC News, asked whether she and the Vice-President had got it wrong because they were kept “in the dark,” she almost sneered: “Nobody was ‘in the dark,’ Jonathan. You want to create this false narrative.” It was a general “you,” directed at the room of reporters. Then she began attacking Democrats for not helping the White House to gang up on Comey when they didn’t like him anyway. She left the reporters basically with a tautology: the story had changed because the President said something different, but what the President said was always true.
Major Garrett, of CBS, asked her to clarify. “By that standard, should reporters and the country essentially wait for a pronouncement from the President before believing that which is stated on his behalf by the White House communications staff?” he said. Sanders, exasperated, said that she still didn’t think that anything she had said “contradicts the President’s decision,” which was all that mattered. Everything else was reporters wasting time, getting “lost in the process.” She might have called it the democratic process, and, this week, something in that has indeed been lost.