That thud you heard was Donald Trump driving the bus over his White House staff.
In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt Thursday night, the President directly contradicted the reasoning his staff — as well as Vice President Mike Pence — had laid out for his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey.
“I was going to fire Comey — my decision, ” Trump told Holt. “There is no good time to do it, by the way. I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.”
That assertion came fewer than 18 hours after Pence was on Capitol Hill telling a totally different story. “The President took strong and decisive leadership here to put the safety and the security of the American people first by accepting the recommendation of the deputy attorney general to remove Director Comey as the head of the FBI, ” Pence said Wednesday.
And he was far from the only one singing from that songbook — which Trump promptly ripped up in his interview with Holt.
“The President was presented with a pretty clear and direct and very strong recommendation by deputy Attorney General (Rod Rosenstein) , ” said White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “The deputy made the recommendation, the president made a swift and decisive action and let Comey go.”
Then there was this from White House counselor Kellyanne Conway: “He acted decisively today, he took the recommendation of his Deputy Attorney General…. I would really ask everyone tonight to read Mr. Rosenstein’s memo. This is what he presented to the Attorney General, he presented to the President and the President took decisive action.”
There is no amount of spin available in the world that would somehow make what Trump said Thursday night jibe with what his aides and his vice president said earlier in the week. It’s simply not possible. C-a-t doesn’t spell dog.
Trump seemed to acknowledge Friday morning the impossibility of his surrogates keeping up with him: “As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” he tweeted.
Why would Trump say what he said to Holt — knowing that it would undermine the significant work his White House had done over the past 24 hours to cast the Comey firing as more than just a fit of pique by the President?
Simple. Trump imagines himself as the decider, the guy sitting in the boardroom and telling people “you’re fired!” (Never underestimate how much of his personality as president is shaped by his time as a reality show boss on “The Apprentice.”) While the story of Rosenstein detailing the FBI’s issues with Comey in a memo to Trump and then Trump thoughtfully considering it before making a decision is clearly the best face to put on the situation, it doesn’t make the President central enough to the firing.
Trump wants the credit. He wants everyone to know he had already made the decision to get rid of Comey before the Rosenstein memo. Because he’s the boss. He’s the guy who makes the calls. He doesn’t sit around and wait for memos from underlings.
Seen in this light, the Rosenstein memo was nothing more than a paper-trail creation to justify Trump’s action. Trump was going to get rid of Comey because he didn’t like Comey — thought he was a showboat and insufficiently loyal. Period. Everything else, as Trump himself made clear in the interview with Holt, is just window-dressing.
Trump has always been a solo operator. He likes it that way. He wants the credit any time he feels credit is due. Being a member of his staff is accepting that reality and eating the embarrassment that comes with your boss directly and publicly contradicting you in the space of 18 hours.
The question for me is how long are people like Pence willing to just sit back and take it?