Whom to believe, whom to believe. On the one hand, some reporting this week appears to have been wrong. The acting FBI director said yesterday he wasn’t aware of Comey having requested more money for the Russiagate probe, contra the stories on Wednesday. Rod Rosenstein also denied reports that he threatened to quit when the White House kinda sorta blamed him for Comey’s firing — although he may have strongly implied that he’d quit without ever saying so explicitly. Whether the reporting was wrong or Rosenstein was just being verrrry careful in how he conveyed his unhappiness to the White House is unclear.
On the other hand, Comey’s perceived lack of “loyalty” to the White House has come up repeatedly this week, and not just from anonymous sources. Kellyanne Conway mentioned it yesterday in an interview with Fox as one of the reasons Trump canned him. Comey’s refusal to brief Trump and Sessions in advance on his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was also viewed in the White House as insubordinate. Team Trump does appear to have been concerned with Comey’s independence or “lack of loyalty.” The question is, did Trump himself confront Comey about it?
As they ate, the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and the crowd sizes at Mr. Trump’s rallies. The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him.
Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, Mr. Comey has recounted to others, he told Mr. Trump that he would always be honest with him, but that he was not “reliable” in the conventional political sense…
By Mr. Comey’s account, his answer to Mr. Trump’s initial question apparently did not satisfy the president, the associates said. Later in the dinner, Mr. Trump again said to Mr. Comey that he needed his loyalty.
Mr. Comey again replied that he would give him “honesty” and did not pledge his loyalty, according to the account of the conversation.
But Mr. Trump pressed him on whether it would be “honest loyalty.”
“You will have that,” Mr. Comey told his associates he responded.
All of that is according to sources close to Comey, of course. The White House denies that Trump ever asked for his loyalty. The timing is interesting, though: The dinner happened a week after the inauguration, according to the Times, which would mean January 27th. Sally Yates claims that she briefed the White House on her concern that Mike Flynn’s phone call with the Russian ambassador had left him compromised on January 26th and 27th. Was Trump asking Comey for loyalty because that’s just the sort of CEO chitchat he typically engages in with new employees or was he asking for it because he was spooked about the Flynn thing and was trying to feel Comey out for how aggressively he intended to pursue the Russiagate probe?
There’s also a dispute over who requested the dinner meeting. Trump says it was Comey’s idea, to make nice with the new boss in hopes of keeping his job. Comey’s allies say it was Trump’s idea and that Comey was reluctant to go, knowing how it would look for the head of the Russiagate probe to be dining with someone whose associates are being investigated. But the president is the president, so he went — reluctantly, supposedly:
“He tried to stay away from it [the Russian-ties investigation],” said the former official, who worked closely with Comey and keeps in touch with him. “He would say, ‘look sir, I really can’t get into it, and you don’t want me to.'”
A current FBI official confirmed that Comey did not request the one-on-one dinner, which happened at the White House a few days after Trump was sworn in…
“The president is not correct,” the former official said. “The White House called him out of the blue. Comey didn’t want to do it. He didn’t even want the rank and file at the FBI to know about it.”
Trump hinted this morning that he has tapes that will vindicate his claims about what Comey said, presumably starting with whether Comey ever told him that he’s not personally under investigation. Comey’s allies have spent the last two days swearing to reporters that he’d never breach protocol like that, but he’s had a habit of breaching protocol over the last 12 months. And as Byron York notes, both Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein have hinted publicly that Comey told them Trump isn’t personally under investigation. There’s no ethical issue there, as they’re both big cheeses on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it does seem to corroborate Trump’s claim that he’s not a target of the Russiagate probe, whether or not he was personally informed of that by Comey.
One wrinkle, though. Trump might not be the only player here who has contemporaneous documentation of what happened in his meetings with the director.
One thing I learned at DOJ about Comey: he leaves a protective paper trail whenever he deems something inappropriate happened. Stay tuned. https://t.co/sENlYyhL5B
— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) May 12, 2017
Is there a memo stashed somewhere at the FBI from late January memorializing what Trump allegedly said to Comey about loyalty? Did other FBI deputies see it at the time? This will get worse for Trump the more credible the “loyalty pledge” incident comes to appear.
Another question. If Trump asked him for his loyalty, why didn’t Comey resign immediately in protest? Even under normal circumstances, that’d be a major breach of the ethic that law enforcement should operate independently of the president’s political interests. When the president raises the subject while some of his own former campaign staffers are being investigated, it’s a mega-breach. Yet Comey stayed on. How come? One theory kicking around in political media is that he was afraid that if he stepped down, Trump would appoint a crony like Chris Christie to replace him and then the Bureau would lose even more of its independence. If Trump wants “loyalty” from the head of the FBI, the best thing Comey could do for his agency would be to politely decline and stay in place, to block Trump from installing someone for whom “loyalty” is a higher priority. I wonder, though, if there isn’t another explanation — Comey may have thought that Trump, the political newbie with a, uh, less than expert-level understanding of civics, might not have realized that what he was asking was improper. Other cabinet members are free to pledge their “loyalty” to the president insofar as that means dutifully carrying out his agenda within the bounds of the law. (It’s a job requirement, in fact.) The DOJ is different. Maybe Comey thought Trump didn’t grasp that initially and decided to set him straight, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he wouldn’t repeat the request for loyalty after their civics lesson. The Times doesn’t claim that Trump raised the subject again after January. But stay tuned, I guess.