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White House Defends Decision To Fire FBI Director James Comey


Today, reporters got a chance to ask President Trump why he did it.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Why did you fire Director Comey?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Because he wasn't doing a good job, very simply. He was not doing a good job.

MCEVERS: Trump talked about his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey while he was sitting next to Henry Kissinger, who worked in the administrations of Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon. That meeting wasn't on the public schedule, but it was the least surprising thing that happened at the White House in the past couple of days.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is at the White House and with us now. And, Mara, what more do we know today about how this firing of James Comey happened?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, Sarah Sanders, who's the deputy press secretary, laid out a timeline for us today. And according to the White House, the president had been losing confidence in Comey over many, many months. She said the hearing last Wednesday when Comey appeared on Capitol Hill was a big catalyst. Comey admitted in that hearing he had gone around the chain of command at the Department of Justice when he held that press conference about the Hillary Clinton email investigation back in July.

Also, this was the same press conference where Comey said he was mildly nauseous at the thought that he might have influenced the outcome of the election. But Sanders said also on Monday the president met with Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. He - they talked about Comey. The president asked Rosenstein to put his reservations about Comey in writing, and then he got that memo from him. And he made his final decision on Tuesday.

MCEVERS: OK. That is the official White House version of what happened, but is it as simple as that?

LIASSON: I don't think so, even though the examples that the White House point to are all about Comey's handling of the Clinton email investigation, we know that the president was very unhappy about Comey's pursuit of the other investigation into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign and Russian meddling in the U.S. elections. The president called it a taxpayer-funded charade and repeatedly referred to the charges of collusion as a hoax. And in his letter firing Comey, the president did not mention anything about the Clinton email investigation.

Instead, he said in that letter that Comey had told him on three separate occasions that he - the president - was not a target of the investigation. We asked Sarah Sanders about this today, she wouldn't talk about it at all - when those occasions were, why they were in the letter. And that is one of the big mysteries of this whole episode. If the FBI director did tell the president that or the president asked him that, it would have been an improper conversation while an investigation was going on.

MCEVERS: And if, as the White House says, this was actually about the Hillary Clinton emails, why not fire Comey in January? Were you able to ask that question today?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question. The White House said - the White House was asked that. Sarah Sanders said Trump wanted to give Comey a chance. In my conversations with Republicans today, they say one of the important pieces of this story was having Rod Rosenstein in place because he has a reputation as someone who has worked for administrations in both parties. His reputation is bulletproof. He's not a partisan hack. And that would have shielded them from some of the controversy from this decision.

Now, you remember, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had recused himself from anything having to do with the Russian investigation. But, of course, Sessions, who is recused from all things Russia, was making a recommendation to fire the guy who was conducting the Russian investigation and will be involved in hiring his replacement.

MCEVERS: Quickly, what happens to the Russian investigation now?

LIASSON: Well, the White House says they want that investigation to go forward as the Department of Justice sees fit and finish as soon as possible so they can move on. Don't forget, there are also investigations in the House and Senate. Comey has been invited to testify on Tuesday behind closed doors, we don't know if he will. And Republicans say they do not think there will be any kind of groundswell among Republicans for a special prosecutor or even a select committee.

MCEVERS: NPR's Mara Liasson at the White House. Thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.