Donald Trump has been president for 110 days. In that time, he has fired an acting attorney general, his national security adviser, dozens of federal prosecutors, including one who was investigating him, and, on Tuesday night, the director of the FBI, James Comey.
While each decision has threatened to kick off a crisis – one could argue that many Americans are now in a perpetual state of minor alarm – the decision to sack Comey landed differently.
So what did Trump, who is nothing if not savvy about how the press and public will react to his every utterance, think was going to happen? Because this is surely not how he planned his Wednesday. Based on what we know about his decision-making process, Trump appears to have made four fundamental miscalculations.
1. He thought Democrats would pull their punches
It’s no secret that most Democrats, especially Clinton supporters and allies, are not exactly Comey superfans. Many of them, including Clinton herself, believe that she would be president today if he had not delivered his now-infamous letter to Congress on October 28, 2016.
As the administration has repeatedly noted, top Democrats were tough on Comey in the aftermath. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was singled out by the White House – and Trump, in a tweet – for his harsh words.
“I’m surprised (Comey’s firing) did create a divide since you’ve had so many Republicans and Democrats repeatedly calling for Director Comey to be gone,” deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during her Wednesday briefing.
Her remark was meant as a rejoinder to Democratic criticism, but one wonders if she was channeling Trump’s very real confusion.
2. He expected Republicans to keep the wagons circled tight
Though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell effectively backed him on Wednesday morning, dismissing Democrats’ outrage as mere partisan rancor, and Sens. Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins were supportive, a number of Republicans seemed rattled too.
House Speaker Paul Ryan was silent on the matter for nearly 24 hours before falling in line with McConnell Wednesday evening. And Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, of North Carolina, on Tuesday expressed serious reservations. He wasn’t alone.
“I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of director Comey’s termination,” Burr said in a statement. Arizona Sen. John McCain too said he was “disappointed” by the firing. Even Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, an early Trump ally, conceded that Comey’s “removal at this particular time will raise questions.”
But it might have been a tweet from Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, no pal of the President, which cut deepest.
“I’ve spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey’s firing,” he wrote. “I just can’t do it.”
3. He outsmarted himself by trying to use Clinton as a shield
Here is Trump, on October 31, 2016, at a rally Grand Rapids, Michigan. Days earlier, Comey revived the Clinton case in a letter to Congress:
“I really disagreed with (Comey in July when he publicly ended the probe), I was not his fan. But I’ll tell you what – what he did, he brought back his reputation. He brought it back. He’s got to hang tough because a lot of people want him to do the wrong thing. But what he did was the right thing.”
Eight days later, Trump defeated Clinton.
But in the memo written by Rosenstein, presented by the White House as Trump’s rationale for acting, Comey’s rough remarks about Clinton at the July 5 press conference are singled out for criticism.
“Compounding the error (of making his decision not to recommend charges public),” Rosenstein wrote, “the Director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation.”
Simply stated, the suggestion that Trump’s decision was swayed in any way by Comey’s less-than-stellar treatment of Clinton doesn’t pass the smell test.
4. He involved Jeff Sessions, casting doubt on integrity of the Justice Department
Former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions was among Trump’s earliest and most influential backers. He was the first in the Senate to endorse the candidate and remained a trusted adviser and surrogate throughout the campaign. But during the attorney general’s confirmation hearings in January, he failed to disclose his past contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
When those conversations were revealed, Sessions responded by recusing himself from any investigation into Russia’s meddling in the campaign.
But when it came time to explain Comey’s dismissal, there was Sessions – front and center. In a memo citing Rosenstein and addressed to Trump, the attorney general said he had “concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI.”
If Trump’s purpose in highlighting the DOJ leaders’ letters was to create the pretense that his decision was informed by impartial advisers, the simple appearance of Sessions’ name dashed it instantly – and undermined the attorney general’s promise to turn his back on any investigations pertaining to Trump and Russia.