Speed Reads

Trump fires James Comey

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein says he didn't threaten to quit, but it's complicated

The only reason President Trump gave for firing FBI Director James Comey in his publicly released termination letter is that he was acting on the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and the memo from Sessions cited "the reasons expressed by the deputy attorney general" plus his own "evaluation." So for the first 24 hours after Trump fired Comey, Trump aides and Vice President Mike Pence gave Rosenstein's advice as the reason — even though Rosenstein's memo had focused on Comey's mistreatment of Hillary Clinton.

Many people found that explanation implausible, and as The Wall Street Journal notes, "Rosenstein never expressly recommended that Mr. Comey be fired" in his memo. On Wednesday night, The Washington Post reported that a person "close to the White House" said Rosenstein "threatened to resign" after he was being blamed as the prime mover of Comey's firing. ABC News White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl heard similar information.

On Thursday, Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior denied that Rosenstein had threatened to quit, and so did Rosenstein. "No, I'm not quitting," he told Sinclair Broadcast Group's Michelle Macaluso in a terse hallway interview. When she asked if he'd threatened to quit, he said, "No." But he did press White House counsel Don McGahn "to correct what he felt was an inaccurate White House depiction of the events" surrounding Comey's firing, The Wall Street Journal reports, citing "a person familiar with the conversation," who added that "Rosenstein left the impression that he couldn't work in an environment where facts weren't accurately reported."

The gambit apparently worked. By Wednesday afternoon, White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was downplaying Rosenstein's role; on Wednesday evening the White House passed out a timeline of events from the Justice Department that said Trump had been "strongly inclined" to fire Comey since watching him testify about the Russia investigation a week earlier; and in an NBC News interview that aired Thursday, Trump said he had planned to fire Comey "regardless of recommendation."

Comey had been three years into a 10-year term. FBI directors have 10-year terms to shield them from political interference.