White House Sends Mixed Messages Over Comey Firing

May 12, 2017
Originally published on May 12, 2017 5:17 pm
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It's been three days since President Trump abruptly fired FBI director James Comey, and the White House is still struggling to get its story straight. The president tweeted this morning that it's not always possible for his aides to provide accurate information because there's so much going on. In a separate tweet, the president warned that the ousted FBI director against leaking to the news media. Some people read that as a threat. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Trump is not making life easy for his communications team. First he undermined their explanation for the firing of the FBI director. Trump told NBC News this week he made that decision on his own before getting the recommendation from top Justice Department officials that aides had pointed to as the president's rationale.

When White House spokespeople struggled to explain that discrepancy, Trump tweeted, maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future press briefings. That left a beleaguered press secretary, Sean Spicer, to say he and his team are doing the best they can.

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SEAN SPICER: The president is an activist president. He keeps a very robust schedule. And I think sometimes we don't have an opportunity to get in to see him to get his full thinking.

HORSLEY: Today the press team and the public have to contend with two very different accounts of a dinner the president had with the FBI director back in January. In Trump's version relayed in that interview with NBC News, Comey invited himself to dinner, asked if he could keep his job at the FBI and assured Trump he's not the target of an investigation into Russian meddling in last year's election.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said, I'll, you know, consider. We'll see what happens. But we had a very nice dinner. And at that time, he told me, you are not under investigation...

LESTER HOLT: That was...

TRUMP: ...Which I knew anyway.

HORSLEY: Andrew McCabe, who took over for Comey as acting director of the FBI, declined to comment on what Comey did or didn't tell the president. But under questioning this week from Senator Ron Wyden, McCabe said telling someone he's not under investigation would be unusual.

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RON WYDEN: Would it have been wrong for the director to inform him he was not under investigation?

ANDREW MCCABE: As you know, Senator, we typically do not answer that question.

HORSLEY: Meanwhile, Comey's associates are telling a very different story about that dinner to The New York Times and other news outlets. In their version, Trump invited Comey to dinner and repeatedly pressed the FBI director for a pledge of loyalty which Comey would not provide.

Trump reacted angrily to that discrepancy this morning, tweeting, quote, "James Comey better hope that there are no tapes of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press." Spicer says he's not aware of any secret recording equipment in the White House, and he denied the president was trying to intimidate Comey.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SPICER: That's not a threat. He simply stated a fact. The tweet speaks for itself. I'm moving on.

HORSLEY: In an interview taped later with Jeanine Pirro of Fox News, Trump denied asking Comey for a pledge of loyalty, though he argued it wouldn't have been inappropriate.

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TRUMP: I don't think it would be a bad question to ask. I think loyalty to the country, loyalty to the United States is important. You know, I mean it depends on how you define loyalty.

HORSLEY: It's not clear whether any of this has fazed the president's most loyal supporters. Trump told NBC News he saw polling data this week showing if the election were held now, he'd win by a bigger margin than he did in November.

The firing of the FBI director and the conflicting messages aren't helping Trump's overall standing, though. An average of polls by the website RealClearPolitics finds disapproval of the president is near the highest of his time in office. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.