While it’s hard to keep up with the shifting reports of how the decision to fire FBI Director James Comey came about, President Donald Trump on Thursday admitted to directly asking the former head of law enforcement if he was under investigation—a move many said presented a shocking conflict of interest.
“A dinner was arranged, I think he asked for the dinner,” Trump told NBC‘s Lester Holt in an interview segment aired Thursday afternoon. The president said that Comey “wanted to stay on,” and Trump said he’d “consider it and see what happens. We had a very nice dinner and at that time he told me you are not under investigation,” he added.
Trump said Comey repeated that claim in two subsequent phone conversations. When Holt asked Trump if he “actually asked him,” Trump replied: “Yes, I said, ‘If it’s possible, will you let me know if I am under investigation?’ He said, ‘You are not under investigation.'”
Though it did not immediately make headlines, the impropriety of that admission raised more than a few eyebrows.
Speaking to NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell later Thursday, “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough called the revelation “extraordinary” and compared it with the infamous and politically devastating tarmac meeting between former President Bill Clinton and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
“What if Bill Clinton got on an airplane with Loretta Lynch and asked the status of an email investigation?” Scarborough asked, noting that “the president just admitted that he did this,” which he added was “an admission against interest—as we’d say in the court.”
“Now for Republicans and editorial boards who rightly condemned Loretta Lynch for meeting Bill Clinton on the tarmac this summer to talk about golf and kids and grandchildren,” he continued, “I wonder if those Republicans are going to be just as critical of the President of the United States asking the FBI director if he was under investigation.”
During Thursday’s White House press briefing, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders brushed off any allegations of conflict of interest. When a reporter asked, “Isn’t it inappropriate for a president to ask the FBI director directly if he is under investigation?” Huckabee Sanders responded: “No I don’t believe it is.”
Probed further, the reporter continued: “One of these conversations the president said happened at a dinner according to the president where the FBI director according to the president was asking to stay on as FBI director. Don’t you see how that’s a conflict of interest? The FBI director is saying he wants to keep his job and the president is asking whether or not he is under investigation.”
“I don’t see that as a conflict of interest,” Huckabee Sanders replied, “and neither do the many legal scholars and many others commenting on it for the last hour.”
Trump further disclosed in the NBC interview that he had made the decision to fire Comey prior to any recommendation by the Department of Justice, contradicting the letter he sent Comey late Tuesday notifying him of his termination, in which he credited the DOJ’s “judgement” for the determination that Comey is “not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”
That claim was repeated by multiple members of the Trump administration. Summing it up, Slate‘s Ben Matthis-Lilley penned a column Thursday titled, “Trump Casually Throws His Entire Administration Under Bus, Admits Comey Firing Cover Story was BS.”
Trump’s statement did lend credence, however, to reports that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was objecting to the portrayal of events that “cast him as a prime mover of the decision to fire Comey and that the president acted only on his recommendation,” which the Washington Post revealed Wednesday, citing an anonymous source close to the White House.
Others declared the whole spectacle “more crazy than Nixon.”