THE COMEY FIRING TIMELINE — UPDATED THROUGH MAY 22

[This post appeared at Bill Moyers & Company on May 22, 2017]

The ongoing revelations in the Trump/Russia saga have been stunning. But the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the resulting cover-up have generated independent scandals of their own.

As we continue to update our Trump/Russia timeline, this new timeline collects separately (and will be updated with) events bearing most directly on the Trump/Comey chapter.

We will continue to update both timelines.

  • Jan. 14, 2017: A member of Trump’s transition team says that Maryland US Attorney Rod Rosenstein will replace Sally Yates as deputy attorney general. In a statement to Congress on May 19, Rosenstein said that, prior to his nomination, in one of his first meetings with then-Sen. Jeff Sessions after the election, he and Sessions had discussed the need for new leadership at the FBI.

 

  • Jan. 22, 2017: FBI Director James Comey is reluctant to attend a White House ceremony honoring law enforcement because, according to his friend Benjamin Wittes, he doesn’t want the director of the Bureau to have a close relationship with any president. But Comey ultimately decides to go. Wittes later tells The New York Times and writes at Lawfare that Comey, noticing that the drapes were a similar shade of blue to his blazer, tried to blend in with them at the far end of the room — as far from Trump as he could get. As the ceremony concludes, Trump calls him over, saying, “Oh, and there’s Jim. He’s become more famous than me.” According to Wittes’ account, as Comey takes the long walk across the room, he is determined that he will not hug Trump. To protect the bureau’s integrity, Comey wants to avoid showing warmth toward him. As Comey pre-emptively reaches out to shake hands, Trump grabs his hand and attempts an embrace. Comey is “disgusted” and, according to Wittes, regards the move as a “physical attempt to show closeness and warmth in a fashion calculated to compromise him before Democrats who already mistrusted him.”

 

 

  • Jan. 27, 2017: McGahn asks Yates to return to the White House for another discussion about Flynn. He asks Yates, “Why does it matter to the Department of Justice if one White House official lies to another?” Yates explains that Flynn’s lies make him vulnerable to Russian blackmail because the Russians know that Flynn lied and could probably prove it.

 

 

 

  • Feb. 14, 2017: In a private Oval Office meeting, Trump asks FBI Director Comey to halt the investigation of former national security adviser Mike Flynn. According to Comey’s contemporaneous memorandum, Trump says, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” According to the memo, Trump tells Comey that Flynn had done nothing wrong. Comey does not say anything to Trump about halting the investigation, replying only: “I agree he is a good guy.”

 

  • March 1, 2017: As Director Comey prepares to board a helicopter, he receives a message from the White House: Trump wants to speak with him urgently. Comey delays his flight but, according to Wittes, soon realizes that Trump wants only to “chitchat.”

 

 

  • March 20, 2017: On the morning of FBI Director Comey’s testimony before Congress on his agency’s investigation into Russian election interference, Trump tweets: “The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign. Big advantage in Electoral College & lost!” Hours later, Comey testifies that the FBI was investigating Russian interference with election, including “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.” With respect to Trump’s wiretapping claims, Comey says, “I have no information that supports those tweets.”

 

 

  • April 25, 2017: The Senate confirms Rod Rosenstein as deputy attorney general. Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from matters relating to the 2016 presidential election, including the Trump/Russia investigation, Rosenstein becomes the top Justice Department official supervising FBI Director Comey on that investigation.

 

  • May 6-7, 2017: Trump spends the weekend at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey. Since March, he’s been fuming over Comey’s congressional appearance, in which the FBI director had acknowledged the FBI’s ongoing investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia and had refuted Trump’s false claim that President Obama had wiretapped him. In the weeks that followed, Trump grew angrier and talked about firing Comey. At Bedminister, Trump grouses over Comey’s May 3 congressional testimony — especially his comment about being “mildly nauseous” at the thought that his actions relating to the Clinton investigation might have affected the outcome of the election.

 

 

  • Also on May 8, 2017: With former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates scheduled to testify later in the day, Trump tweets:

 

  • May 9, 2017: Citing the May 9 recommendations of Attorney General Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, Trump fires FBI Director Comey, ostensibly because of his inappropriate statements about the Clinton email investigation prior to the 2016 election. Trump, Sessions, and Rosenstein write that terminating Comey is necessary to restore trust, confidence and integrity in the FBI. In his termination letter to Comey, Trump also says he “greatly appreciates you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”

 

  • Also on May 9, 2017: CNN reports that a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia had recently issued subpoenas to associates of former national security adviser Mike Flynn.

 

  • Also on May 9, 2017: Late in the evening and amid bushes on the White House grounds, press secretary Sean Spicer tells reporters to “turn the lights off” before answering questions about Comey’s firing. He says that the impetus came from the deputy attorney general. “No one from the White House,” Spicer says. “That was a DOJ decision.” Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway echoes that position on CNN, reading excerpts from Rosenstein’s memo to Anderson Cooper.

 

  • May 10, 2017: Vice President Mike Pence says repeatedly that Comey’s firing occurred because Sessions and Rosenstein recommended it: The deputy attorney general “came to work, sat down and made the recommendation for the FBI to be able to do its job that it would need new leadership. He brought that recommendation to the president. The attorney general concurred with that recommendation.”

 

  • Also on May 10, 2017: Deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says Trump had been thinking about firing Comey “since the day he was elected,” but reiterates Pence’s position that Sessions and Rosenstein were “absolutely” the impetus for the firing.

 

 

  • Also on May 10, 2017: Rod Rosenstein speaks by phone with White House counsel Don McGahn. According to The Wall Street Journal, Rosenstein insists that the White House correct the misimpression that Rosenstein initiated the process leading to Comey’s firing. He suggests that he can’t work in an environment where facts aren’t reported accurately.

 

  • Also on May 10, 2017: The White House releases a new timeline of the events relating to Comey’s firing. It recites that the impetus for removing Comey had come from Trump, not the deputy attorney general. But the White House acknowledges that Trump met with Sessions and Rosenstein on May 8 to discuss “reasons for removing the director” and that the attorney general and his deputy sent their written recommendations to Trump on May 9.

 

 

  • Also on May 10, 2017: At an Oval Office meeting with Russia’s Ambassador Kislyak, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and their aides, Trump reveals highly classified intelligence about the Islamic State and American counterterrorism plans. The meeting occurs because Putin previously had asked Trump to meet with Lavrov, and, Trump later says, he didn’t feel he could say no. Kislyak’s presence was unexpected. The intelligence that Trump reveals is so sensitive that it has not been shared with American allies and has been tightly restricted within the US government. Minutes after the meeting ends, Kislyak’s presence becomes known when the Russian news agency TASS publishes photographs that a Russian photographer had taken of the session. The White House had not permitted any US news organization to attend any part of the meeting, even for photographs. During the meeting, Trump also discusses the Comey firing. “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump says. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Then he adds, “I’m not under investigation.”

 

 

  • Also on May 11, 2017: Trump tells NBC’s Lester Holt that he had already decided to fire Comey before his meeting with Sessions and Rosenstein: “Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact, when I decided to do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story….” Trump also says that on three different occasions — once in person and twice over the phone — he’d asked Comey if he was under investigation for alleged ties to Russia, and Comey told him he wasn’t. And Trump tells Holt that he had sent Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) a “certified letter” from “from one of the most prestigious law firms in the country” confirming that he has “nothing to do with Russia.”

 

  • Also on May 11, 2017: The New York Times reports on Trump’s one-on-one dinner with Comey on Jan. 27, when Trump asked Comey for a personal loyalty pledge that Comey refused to provide.

 

 

  • May 12, 2017: Trump tweets:
  • Also on May 12, 2017: In response to questions about Trump’s early morning tweet about Comey and “tapes,” press secretary Sean Spicer refuses to answer whether Trump was taping Oval Office conversations. “The president has nothing further to add on that,” Spicer says repeatedly.

 

  • Also on May 12, 2017: The White House releases a one-page May 8, 2017 letter from Trump’s outside lawyers — Sheri Dillon and William Nelson at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. The carefully worded letter states that “with a few exceptions” totaling about $100 million, Trump’s tax returns from 2005 “do not reflect” any “income from Russian sources,” “debt owed by you or [The Trump Organization] to Russian lenders,” “equity investments by Russian persons or entities,” or “equity or debt investments by you or [The Trump Organization] in Russian entities.” The letter does not define “Russian” or purport to determine whether or to what extent individuals from Russia, Ukraine or other former Soviet-bloc countries may have used shell corporations through which they may have conducted transactions with Trump businesses. Months earlier, Dillon had developed and presented Trump’s business conflicts of interest plan whereby Trump retained all ownership in his businesses.

 

  • Also on May 12, 2017: The Wall Street Journal reports that the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) — a unit that specializes in combating money-laundering — will share financial records with the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Trump’s ties to Russia.

 

  • May 15, 2017: At his daily press conference, Sean Spicer refuses — seven times — to answer whether Trump is secretly recording his conversations.

 

  • Also May 15, 2017: National security adviser H.R. McMaster issues a 40-second “non-denial denial” of the Washington Post story that Trump disclosed highly classified intelligence to Russian Ambassador Kislyak and Foreign Minister Lavrov. McMaster says, “The story that came out tonight as reported is false… At no time, at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.” The Post story had said nothing about disclosure of “intelligence sources and methods.” “I was in the room,” McMaster concludes. “It didn’t happen.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who also attended the Oval Office meeting with the Russians, issues a statement saying the group “did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.”

 

  • May 16, 2017: In response to press reports that former FBI Director James Comey had written a contemporaneous memorandum documenting Trump’s Feb. 14 request to halt the Flynn investigation, the White House issues an unattributed statement that concludes: “This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey.”

 

  • Also on May 16, 2017: Trump tweets:






[Added May 18, 2017]

  • Also on May 16, 2017: National security adviser McMaster tells reporters repeatedly that Trump’s disclosure of intelligence with the Russians was “wholly appropriate.” As his press conference ends, McMaster says that Trump “wasn’t even aware where this information came from. He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information either.”

 

 

  • Also on May 17, 2017: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein names former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference with the election. In a White House statement, Trump says, “As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity. I look forward to this matter concluding quickly.”

 

  • Also on May 18, 2017: At a joint news conference with the president of Colombia, a reporter asks Trump whether he ever asked former Director Comey to close or back down the investigation into Michael Flynn. “No. No,” Trump answers. “Next question.” He goes on to characterize the ongoing Trump/Russia investigation as “totally ridiculous” and a “witch hunt.” Then he adds, “Director Comey was very unpopular with most people, I actually thought when I made that decision. And I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.”

 

 

  • Also on May 19, 2017: Reuters reports on efforts by White House lawyers to undermine Robert Mueller’s credibility. They’re particularly interested in a rule that restricts newly hired government lawyers from investigating clients of their former employer for at least one year. By executive order on Jan. 28, 2017, Trump had extended that period to two years; however, the Justice Department can waive the rule. Mueller’s law firm WilmerHale represents Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, but the firm says that Mueller has not personally worked with any Trump-related clients. Meanwhile, CNN reports that White House lawyers are also researching impeachment procedures.

 

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