Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Team Trump’s cover story falls apart

President Donald Trump, shown in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post by Jabin Botsford
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
President Donald Trump

For anyone with eyes to see, the Trump administration’s credibility now lies in pieces.

We know that from no less a source than Donald Trump himself, who on Thursday contradicted the story he and his White House had repeatedly offered for why he fired FBI Director James Comey.

In Comey’s termination letter earlier this week, Trump said Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had recommended Comey’s dismissal, and that “I have accepted their recommendation.” Vice President Pence has said the same, as have White House spokesfolk Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

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But on Thursday, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that he had already made up his mind to fire Comey — whom he described as a “showboat” and “a grandstander” — when he met with Sessions and Rosenstein on Monday.

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“I was going to fire Comey,” he said. “I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.”

Further, Trump said that in a dinner conversation with Comey about whether Trump would keep him on as FBI director, Trump asked whether he was under investigation. If that’s true, talk about a not-so-veiled attempt to influence that investigation.

The question now becomes this: Have we finally reached a tipping point in accountability — or will congressional Republicans hunker down like a hare in a hail storm and hope that this, too, shall pass? The answer is not yet apparent, but one moment of clarity comes from Richard Painter, the chief ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, who cuts through the dissembling, deflection, and disinformation we’ve seen from the administration.

“It is highly unusual to dismiss an FBI director,” Painter told me, “and to dismiss an FBI director while the FBI is investigating the president or members of his inner circle in a major investigation is clearly an abuse of power.” Painter says it’s time for an independent prosecutor, chosen with the sign-off of both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, to lead the FBI’s Russia probe.

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Certainly concerns and support for a special counsel are growing more intense, even as the Trump administration’s why-Comey-was-canned cover story has fallen apart in record time.

Even before Trump himself wandered off the White House line, various news outlets had reported that Comey had asked for resources for an expanded Russia probe just days before his dismissal (an account the Department of Justice has denied). Further, Trump was reportedly annoyed that Comey had refused to back up his false claim that the Obama administration had wiretapped him, fuming over the Russia investigation, and angry that Comey refused to preview his recent congressional testimony with the White House.

It’s also worth noting that if any of that came under discussion at Trump’s Monday meeting with Sessions and Rosenstein, then the attorney general has broken his promise to recuse himself from matters pertaining to the Russia investigation.

All these developments have taken a cover story that was risible from the start and rendered it ridiculous: The president and his team found it unacceptable that Comey had (1) circumvented the Department of Justice chain of command by holding a July press conference to announce that he was recommending against prosecuting Hillary Clinton and (2) that he made “derogatory” comments about Clinton at the press conference. The only aspect of that story that appears even tangentially truthful is that the president doesn’t want an independent, outspoken FBI director in control of the Russia investigation.

As the old saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up. Except that the Trump team is obviously doing just that. Committed citizens, as opposed to committed partisans, need to demand the truth — and to get that truth from an administration that obviously wants to bring the FBI to heel, an independent prosecutor has become absolutely essential.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.