Did Donald Trump accuse James Comey of extortion — or just political infighting? In his free-for-all interview with the New York Times, Trump recalled the meeting with former FBI director James Comey in which Comey first raised the issue of the now-largely-debunked intel dossier from former British spy Christopher Steele. Trump called it “totally phony stuff,” and speculated in the interview that Comey brought it in order to get “leverage” over him:
TRUMP: When he [James B. Comey] brought it [the dossier] to me, I said this is really made-up junk. I didn’t think about anything. I just thought about, man, this is such a phony deal. …
TRUMP: So anyway, in my opinion, he shared it so that I would think he had it out there.
SCHMIDT: As leverage?
TRUMP: Yeah, I think so. In retrospect. In retrospect. You know, when he wrote me the letter, he said, “You have every right to fire me,” blah blah blah. Right? He said, “You have every right to fire me.” I said, that’s a very strange — you know, over the years, I’ve hired a lot of people, I’ve fired a lot of people. Nobody has ever written me a letter back that you have every right to fire me.
Did Trump accuse Comey of committing extortion? Vanity Fair’s Maya Kosoff thinks so:
President Donald Trump suggested Wednesday that former F.B.I. director James Comey, whom he fired in May amid the bureau’s investigation into alleged collusion between his campaign and Russia, was trying to blackmail him when the two discussed the existence of the infamous Steele dossier. The unverified intelligence document, which was compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, was first made public in January, though copies had circulated in political and media circles for months. It contains salacious allegations linking Trump to Russia, many of which were considered by most news outlets to be too absurd or unverifiable to be published. Still, the U.S. government took the document seriously enough that it was investigated by the F.B.I., which has since confirmed several of Steele’s allegations.
In early January, Trump was briefed on the dossier by the nation’s four top intelligence officials, who presented a summary of its findings to the president-elect in order to make him aware of the allegations about him and his campaign. But in a sprawling interview with The New York Times, published Wednesday night, Trump asserted that when Comey told him about the dossier, in a meeting at Trump Tower two weeks before the inauguration, he was attempting to hold it over his head. “In my opinion, he shared it so that I would think he had it out there,” Trump told the Times. When he was asked if he thought the dossier would be used as leverage, Trump said, “Yeah, I think so. In retrospect.”
Meh. Trump never suggests that Comey made any demands on Trump, which would be a necessary component of extortion or blackmail. What Trump describes here — almost certainly erroneously — isn’t either of those crimes, but something with which Trump is more familiar: the use of information as a certain quantity of power. Given that Trump figured it was “totally phony,” he would have assumed it didn’t actually have much value to Comey. If that’s what Trump thought Comey had in mind, though, it explains why Trump would have been itching to fire the FBI director, and might have felt a lot more free to do so when the dossier turned out to be a dud.
What’s remarkable, however, is that Trump seems to have taken that way rather than a courtesy briefing on a potential problem, and that he’d still be complaining about it now. We know that Comey briefed Trump in January about the existence of the dossier, so it wasn’t a catalyst for his firing. What had happened if Comey never briefed Trump on the dossier, and instead read about it first on BuzzFeed or CNN and then found out the FBI had already started to investigate it? He’d have a lot more reason to suspect Comey’s motives in that instance, wouldn’t he?
In fact, it’s even more remarkable that it came up at all in the NYT interview. Trump volunteered it when the topic switched to the e-mail chain that led to Donald Trump Jr’s meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was represented in the e-mail as a representative of the Russian government. Trump tells them that he thought the news reports on the topic were about Russian payments to the DNC, and then brings up the dossier as an argument about his unfair treatment in the press:
BAKER: I do want to come out, on the email, now that you have seen that email that said Russia’s government — I mean, how did you — did you interpret it that way?
TRUMP: Well, I thought originally it might have had to do something with the payment by Russia of the D.N.C. Somewhere I heard that. Like, it was an illegal act done by the D.N.C., or the Democrats. That’s what I had heard. Now, I don’t know where I heard it, but I had heard that it had to do something with illegal acts with respect to the D.N.C. Now, you know, when you look at the kind of stuff that came out, that was, that was some pretty horrific things came out of that. But that’s what I had heard. But I don’t know what it means. All I know is this: When somebody calls up and they say, “We have infor—” Look what they did to me with Russia, and it was totally phony stuff.
HABERMAN: Which, which one?
SCHMIDT: The dossier.
TRUMP: The dossier.
Why bring up Comey at all? Why bring up the dossier all over again? In fact, who at the White House thought it was a good idea to give the New York Times a free-for-all with one of the most extemporaneous and undisciplined politicians in recent memory? Remember that the White House had carefully crafted “theme weeks” as a means to get control of the news cycles.
Trump did get some unexpected support for his gripes about Comey from deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — about whom Trump had griped to the NYT, too. Rosenstein told Fox’s Martha McCallum that Comey’s leak of personal memos violated Department of Justice norms on confidentiality … which is not the first time Rosenstein and others have made that complaint about Comey:
During an appearance on Fox News, the No. 2 Justice Department official was asked whether it would “ever be proper for a FBI director” to leak notes about conversations with the president.
As a general proposition, you have to understand the Department of Justice. We take confidentiality seriously, so when we have memoranda about our ongoing matters, we have an obligation to keep that confidential,” Rosenstein said during the interview for Fox’s “The Story with Martha MacCallum,” which was taped Tuesday but aired on Wednesday. “As a general position, I think it is quite clear. It’s what we were taught, all of us as prosecutors and agents.”
Before we get to that criticism, Rosenstein spends some time defending the expansion of civil forfeiture, basically arguing that the federal government has lots of attorneys determining that probable cause exists. Feel better about that?