Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, and protesters respond Wednesday to President Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey. (Video by Karys S. Belger/Medill News Service)
A single event this week, the firing of FBI director James Comey, provides a bevvy of alternative facts of the most consequential variety. No mere lying about the size of the inaugural crowd, this streak of evasion, distraction and mendacity from the White House and its allies cuts to the core American principles of an independent system of justice and respect for the rule of law. Here's a sampling of the blatant falsehoods from the White House about Mr. Comey's dismissal:
Nothing to do with Russia
When asked Wednesday whether the firing was related to the FBI's probe into possible connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian hacking aimed at influencing the election, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders flatly responded, "No." When questioned, Vice President Mike Pence said, "That's not what this is about." White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said on CNN, "This has nothing to do with Russia. Somebody must be getting $50 every time [Russia] is said on TV. ... [This] has everything to do with whether the current FBI director has the president's confidence and can faithfully execute his duties."
Mountains of subsequent reporting says otherwise. The Washington Post reported today that President Trump had been stewing about Mr. Comey's statements about the investigation over the weekend and decided then that he should be fired. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Mr. Comey had asked for more resources for the Russia investigation shortly before he was fired. Politico reported that Mr. Trump didn't like that Mr. Comey had confirmed that his campaign was under investigation and that the director was focused on probing the possible Russian connections, not the source of leaks to the press about the matter.
But we can also go straight to the source. In the days before the firing, President Trump tweeted repeatedly about the Russia investigation, including on Monday, when he wrote, "The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?" In his brief letter to Mr. Comey informing him that he was fired, Mr. Trump inserted his own, unbidden Russia reference, claiming the director told him three times that he was not under investigation. (Some reports suggest this, too, isn't exactly true.)
In March, after revelations that he had presented false testimony about his contacts with Russian officials while an adviser and surrogate for the Trump campaign, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he would recuse himself from involvement in the investigation into Russian hacking. He said he made the decision after consulting with Justice Department officials who advised "that since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation."
On Monday, by all accounts, including the evolving ones from the White House, Mr. Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein met with President Trump and discussed Mr. Comey's fate. A day later, Mr. Sessions wrote in a letter to the president, "Based on my evaluation ... I have concluded that a fresh start is needed in the leadership at the FBI. ... I must recommend that you remove Director James B. Comey Jr." If you read Mr. Rosenstein's memo closely, you'll note he does not actually call for Mr. Comey to be fired. Mr. Sessions does.
Quite simply, you cannot profess to be uninvolved in an investigation and then recommend that the head of it be fired, for whatever reason.
In White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's initial account, the firing was a culmination of an investigation into Mr. Comey's fitness for the post that Mr. Rosenstein commenced upon taking the No. 2 spot at justice two weeks ago. Ms. Sanders said Mr. Rosenstein developed the memo "on his own" and not "at the direction necessarily" of the president. Vice President Pence said "When [Mr. Rosenstein] brought the recommendation to the president that the director of the FBI should be removed, President Trump provided the kind of strong and decisive leadership the American people have become to be accustomed from him."
That is all untrue.
Mr. Rosenstein may well have been offended by Mr. Comey's public statements related to the Clinton investigation at the time, as friends and associates have recently suggested, but he was in fact directed by the president to provide written justification for the decision the president had already made to fire Mr. Comey, according to the Washington Post and the New York Times. And if there was any doubt about it, Mr. Trump himself confirmed in an interview with NBC News Thursday that Mr. Rosenstein had nothing to do with it. The president said he was determined to fire Mr. Comey — "a showboat," the president said — regardless of any advice from the Justice Department.
Independent investigations impede investigations
The calls for the Justice Department to name a special prosecutor to take over the Trump campaign-Russia investigation, for Congress to establish a select committee to do so, or both, have grown to a fever pitch since Mr. Comey's firing. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly shot down the notion that the GOP-led Congress will act with a piece of particularly bizarre reasoning: "Too much is at stake" to have an independent inquiry, which would "only serve to impede the current work being done to not only discover what the Russians may have done but also to let this body and the national security community develop counter measures."
Appointing a special prosecutor wouldn't impede the Senate Intelligence Committee's probe into possible Trump-Russia connections. What would is firing the head of the FBI, or so says the committee's chairman, Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who said it "further confuses an already difficult investigation by the committee."
Comey had lost the confidence of the FBI
In his first public comment on the firing, President Trump said Mr. Comey was dismissed because "He was not doing a good job." Ms. Sanders elaborated in a press briefing: "Most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director."
No doubt, some agents disliked Mr. Comey and were upset about his leadership in various ways — as is to be expected in an organization that large. Furthermore, there is evidence suggesting that a cadre of agents close to Trump loyalists including former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani were upset at Mr. Comey's recommendation that Ms. Clinton should not face criminal charges in the email scandal and were leaking the campaign information prior to the election.
But the broader community of current and former FBI agents appears perplexed by this claim. FBI Agents Association President Thomas O'Connor told Politico that Mr. Comey's "support within the rank and file of the FBI is overwhelming" and that agents took the firing as a "gut punch." Other reports characterized agents as "stunned,"demoralized and even "in tears."
'One of the greatest military frauds in U.S. history'
As the uproar about Mr. Trump's decision intensified this week, he predictably took to Twitter to punch back at his critics. Besides "Cryin' Chuck Schumer," Mr. Trump went after Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal moments after the Democrat had compared the president's actions to Richard Nixon's Saturday night massacre during a televised interview. "Watching Senator Richard Blumenthal speak of Comey is a joke. 'Richie' devised one of the greatest military frauds in U.S. history," President Trump wrote. "For years, as a pol in Connecticut, Blumenthal would talk of his great bravery and conquests in Vietnam — except he was never there. When caught, he cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness...and now he is judge & jury. He should be the one who is investigated for his acts."
The New York Times reported in 2010 that Mr. Blumenthal, who was then Connecticut attorney general, had repeatedly misstated his military record. He often spoke in ways that suggested he had actually served in Vietnam, whereas he had gotten multiple deferments (like Mr. Trump) and had eventually served in the Marine reserves (unlike Mr. Trump). However, the reporting did not find that "Mr. Blumenthal had boasted of bravery or conquests," the Times wrote this week.
The truth about Mr. Trump's long-running Twitter war against Senator Blumenthal is less important here than the fact that it reflects the president's go-to tactic when he's under pressure: Make outlandish and unrelated accusations and demand they (and not he) be investigated. People are upset that the president is lying about the crowd size at his inauguration? Insist you would have won if not for millions of illegal votes and demand an investigation. Your attorney general has just given in to calls to recuse himself from the Russia investigation? Claim President Obama wiretapped you and demand an investigation. Get compared to Nixon? Go after an old story about a Democrat and demand an investigation.
President Trump is a master of distraction. Don't fall for it. He was angry with Mr. Comey for pursuing and publicly acknowledging an investigation into his campaign's possible ties to Russia, for failing to back up his cockamamie story about President Obama wiretapping him and for expressing any kind of discomfort at the notion that his actions might have had an influence on the election. The president hid his decision behind the formerly good reputation for Mr. Rosenstein, and he did massive damage to the public's confidence that the criminal justice system operates independently from politics. Those are the real facts of the week.