A draft letter from President Donald Trump justifying the firing of FBI Director James Comey and now reported to be in the hands of Special Counsel Robert Mueller was substantially watered down before Trump dismissed Comey in May, according to people familiar with the events.
The decision to fire Comey was made by the president the weekend before the firing as he huddled at his country club in Bedminster, N.J., with his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and top policy adviser Stephen Miller, the people said.
“It was talked and talked about,” said one Trump adviser who asked not to be named.
In the prior weeks, Trump was increasingly obsessed with Comey and concerned that he was disloyal to the administration, aides and advisers said. Those sentiments came to a boil after Comey’s May 3 Senate testimony, where the FBI chief said he was “mildly nauseous” over the idea his actions in connection with the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email account may have swayed the presidential election.
Several senior White House officials including White House counsel Don McGahn, chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon advised Trump to delay Comey’s dismissal and warned that firing him amid widespread press coverage of allegations of Russian involvement in Trump’s campaign would trigger a firestorm, the sources said.
The men were able to delay the firing for several weeks, slowing but not stopping Trump’s decision as he fumed, by warning him of the consequences. Once Trump returned from New Jersey, it was clear he wasn’t changing his mind.
Then, the White House began frantically searching for how to explain the firing. McGahn had told Trump that the firing would be “less of a big deal” if it was handled properly and delayed, one person said, describing the conversations.
“It turned out to be what everyone was afraid of,” one adviser said. “A pivotal point for his presidency, and not a good one.”
The New York Times reported Friday that Mueller has obtained a copy of the draft letter that Trump prepared over the weekend he was in New Jersey.
It’s not clear how the draft letter about Comey’s firing wound up in Mueller’s possession.
Asked whether Justice Department officials provided the letter to Mueller, Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said: “The Department of Justice has been fully cooperating with the special counsel and will continue to do so.” He declined to elaborate.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein were in contact with the White House and visited with Trump the day before Comey’s dismissal was announced on May 9.
Rosenstein and Sessions both drafted memos used to support Comey’s firing, largely on the grounds that he violated Justice Department protocols in 2016 by speaking publicly about the decision not to charge Clinton, the findings of the FBI investigation, and by usurping the role of Justice Department officials in making final decisions about the case.
While the White House initially insisted that Comey was fired for the reasons Rosenstein detailed in his memo, Trump later acknowledged in an interview that he had already decided to fire Comey before Sessions and Rosenstein visited and shared their views. The president also conceded that when he made the decision he had Comey’s role in the Russia probe in mind.
Trump’s actions and his public statements have fueled claims that he may have obstructed justice by firing Comey in order to shut down the Russia investigation.
Now, there are even stronger indications that Mueller is probing the Comey firing as part of a broader investigation into whether Trump aides or advisers colluded with Russia during the campaign or thereafter. White House aides say they expect to be interviewed by Mueller’s team about Comey’s firing.
A spokesman for Mueller’s office declined to comment Friday.
While Trump insisted on going forward with the firing, McGahn did manage to get him not to send the draft letter that took Comey to task in greater detail.
Instead, Trump ultimately sent the FBI chief a terse, four-paragraph missive that invoked Sessions’ and Rosenstein’s letters but did not get into detail about what Comey had done to elicit Trump’s ire.
Trump did refer to the Russia probe by asserting that Comey had assured him he wasn’t a focus of the inquiry.
“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” Trump wrote.
Comey later acknowledged he had given Trump such assurances as far back as the transition.
White House lawyer Ty Cobb declined to discuss the letter, but said the White House was cooperating with Mueller’s inquiry.
Senior White House officials are expected to be asked about the events.
“To the extent the special prosecutor is interested in these matters, we will be fully transparent with him,” Cobb said in a statement.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders rebuffed requests Friday to explain the sequence of events surrounding Comey’s firing and to make public a copy of the draft letter
“I’m not going to get into any of that,” Sanders said. “We’re going to work with the special prosecutor as Ty said and we’ll work through that process.”
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