That President Donald Trump knew about hush money paid to a porn star isn’t the only shocking thing his new lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, acknowledged Wednesday. Giuliani also said that the reason Trump fired James Comey as FBI director was essentially because Comey wouldn’t do his bidding in the Russia investigation.
“He fired Comey because Comey would not, among other things, say that he wasn’t a target of the investigation,” Giuliani told Fox News’s Sean Hannity.
Whether that rises to obstruction of justice is up for the special counsel to decide. We know Robert S. Mueller III is investigating possible obstruction. But, just making an educated guess here: Had Trump said then what Giuliani says now about Comey’s firing, members of Congress would have reacted very differently.
In fact, this admission a year later makes some of the Republicans who backed Trump in that controversial decision look, well, a little foolish.
They publicly took Trump at his word that the firing was about something else, something with a lot less legal implications for the president, and it is looking increasingly like that wasn’t the case. At the time, what GOP lawmakers had to go on was a memo from the Justice Department that said Comey didn’t handle himself well in the Hillary Clinton email investigation. White House aides emphasized the Clinton message the next day. At the time, we counted 16 Republican senators who didn’t support Trump’s firing of Comey, at least 10 who did and some 21 who decided not to weigh in publicly – the equivalent of tacit support for it.
Sure, Trump said in an interview a few days later that he fired Comey because of “that Russia thing,” but it wasn’t clear at the time if the president was just spouting off. Republicans who supported Comey’s firing still had reason to believe it was primarily rooted in the FBI director’s handling of the Clinton investigation. (And therefore, Trump wasn’t meddling in an ongoing investigation involving his own campaign.) As recently as last month, Trump tweeted that he didn’t fire Comey because of the Russia investigation.
Trump tweeted “Slippery James Comey, the worst FBI Director in history, was not fired because of the phony Russia investigation where, by the way, there was NO COLLUSION (except by the Dems)!”
Trump tweeted “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt”
The circumstances surrounding Comey’s firing look very different after Giuliani’s comments.
Giuliani seemed to have no problem acknowledging why Trump fired Comey because he clearly thinks Comey was in the wrong. Comey announced to the world in 2016 that he wouldn’t be charging Clinton with a crime for her emails. Why wouldn’t Comey say the same about Trump? “Hillary Clinton got that and he couldn’t get that,” Giuliani said.
Except, for Clinton, Comey was announcing an investigation that he believed to be finished. The Russia investigation was far from finished, and in fact, Trump soon would come under investigation, in part driven by firing Comey. Now Mueller wants to talk to Trump, and he has threatened to subpoena the president to make it happen.
How Republicans reacted (or will react) to the president’s reasons about Comey’s firing is worth parsing because it’s a good barometer of how Republicans will work with the president on the whole.
The Comey firing was really the first major division between a significant number of Republicans and the president. There had been cracks before this; a number of them disagreed with his rollout of the travel ban and didn’t like how long it took him to fire his national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn. Trump’s Charlottesville comments were yet to come. At the time, firing Comey was a chasm that forced Republicans to pick sides: You were either with the president or you weren’t. Some of Trump’s future GOP critics would make themselves known by opposing Comey’s firing.
“[H]is removal at this particular time will raise questions,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who would later say Trump had not demonstrated “the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to be successful.”
“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,” tweeted Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who later that year would frame his retirement announcement around opposing Trump.
Also worth noting: At the time Trump fired Comey, GOP leaders had just refused to set up a special committee in the House or Senate dedicated entirely to investigating Russia meddling. That job was left up to the already existing Senate and House intelligence committees, a much less abrasive decision for the president.
What might have changed – about both the special committees and Republican backing of Trump – if Trump had flat-out said last May: I fired the FBI director because he wouldn’t say what I wanted him to? It’d be very hard to see as many Republicans supporting him in that decision as they originally did.
That’s a hypothetical question, of course. But it’s one worth pondering as Trump’s true intentions about this critical moment in his administration start coming out.
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