A little before 3 p.m. ET on May 9, 2017, since departed White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked if President Donald Trump still had “full confidence” in his FBI director, James Comey.
“I have no reason to believe – I haven’t asked him, so I don’t, I have not asked the President since the last time we spoke about this,” Spicer said, sputtering as news emerged that Comey had, during his appearance on Capitol Hill on days earlier, overstated the number of emails – some of them with classified information – that Huma Abedin, a top aide and confidant to Hillary Clinton, forwarded to the laptop of her husband, former Rep. Anthony Weiner.
Three hours later, Trump would fire Comey, setting off the chain of events that would culminate with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s May 17 appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller.
The question in the briefing room that day was prompted in part by Comey’s flubbed testimony, which the FBI would subsequently correct it in a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein. But the tensions between Comey and Trump had been festering for much longer – even if the public didn’t yet know the extent of it. Comey’s firing would initially be justified, by the Justice Department and Trump, as a punishment for his controversial handling of the Clinton email investigation. The White House’s calculus at the time, as quickly became clear, was that Democratic anger at Comey over his perceived role in Clinton’s election defeat would mute partisan criticism of his sacking.
It turned out to be a remarkable and potentially damning miscalculation.
Comey himself wasn’t in Washington when the decision came down. He got the news like millions of other Americans – via cable television, his talk to a group of FBI agents in Los Angeles cut awkwardly short as the bulletin crossed.
What follows is a reconstruction of how so many more experienced it – from the jarring, happy hour-timed announcement, which touched off a flurry of increasingly frantic calls for a independent investigation into Russian election meddling (mixed in with some cheering from the Trump-friendly right) and, eventually, a defensive President’s evening and early morning Twitter attacks on the Democrats and Comey.
May 9, 2017
May 10: Trump defends decision
May 17: DOJ appoints Robert Mueller special counsel
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond and Laura Jarrett report:
Washington — The Justice Department on Wednesday appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, including potential collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign associates and Russian officials.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller to the position in a letter obtained by CNN. Attorney General Jeff Sessions previously recused himself from any involvement in the Russia investigation due to his role as a prominent campaign adviser and surrogate.
As special counsel, Mueller is “authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters,” according to the Justice Department order Rosenstein signed.
Mueller’s appointment aims to quell the wave of criticism that Trump and his administration have faced since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last week in the middle of the FBI’s intensifying investigation into contacts between Trump campaign associates and Russian officials.