Donald Trump has survived more seemingly fatal political scandals than any American politician before him – but even his allies see the president’s shock decision to fire FBI Director James Comey as an unmatched threat to his young presidency.
Sacking one of the nation’s top law-enforcement officials threatens to bury Trump’s legislative agenda under the rumble of bipartisan outcry – and it’s put the White House on defense explaining why canning the lead investigator into Trump associates’ ties to Russia isn’t an attempt to quash a presidency-threatening probe.
“I have always felt, since he won, that in many ways he was made a little bit of Teflon, with his base and maybe even outside his base,” said longtime Republican strategist Austin Barbour. “I think this is a different deal.”
Yet the White House itself has seemed ill-prepared for the scope of the fallout – many top White House officials were surprised by the seemingly impulsive firing and left to spin and explain the president’s action without a clear, concise and coherent defense.
At one point late Tuesday night, White House press secretary Sean Spicer huddled behind hedges on the White House grounds to settle on a strategy before addressing reporters, demanding their cameras be turned off before he brief them.
“They kept this under lock and key,” said one White House official who was unaware before the firing was made public. “This caught everybody by surprise.”
By Wednesday morning, Trump tried to take matters into his own tweeting fingertips. He slashed at “Cryin’” Chuck Schumer, accused Democrats of hypocrisy and rebutted the idea that informal adviser Roger Stone, who is part of the FBI probe, played any role. “Have not spoken to Roger in a long time — had nothing to do with my decision,” Trump tweeted.
Trump himself seemingly thumbed its nose at the public outcry, spending the morning mounting his own defense on Twitter, and then meeting with two top Russian diplomats in the Oval Office, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The Russian government released jovial-looking pictures of the three men; American press were barred from the meet-and-greet.
Trump also met with Henry Kissinger, the former top adviser to President Richard Nixon, the same day critics were shouting about echoes of Watergate in firing Comey as he led a Trump-related investigation.
“He wasn’t doing a good job. Very simply. He was not doing a good job,” Trump said of Comey as he sat next to Kissinger.
For months, Trump has chafed at the drip, drip, drip of Russia news, complaining to friends, advisers and his Twitter followers that Democrats are using it both as an excuse for their loss and to undermine the legitimacy of his presidency. But if Trump seriously believed firing the FBI director would quell Russia-related headlines, political strategists and congressional officials say he is going to be sorely mistaken.
“Now they have a self-inflicted and well-deserved political firestorm because of the timing,” said Rick Tyler, a GOP strategist and former adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz.
Emboldened Democrats are turning up the volume on their calls for a special prosecutor. Lawmakers are calling for Comey to testify on Capitol Hill about what happened. There will be yet more congressional hearings over whomever Trump nominates to replace Comey, with an extra focus on Russia. And U.S. officials said the FBI director’s sacking came in the wake of asking for extra resources to investigate the Russia matter (the Justice Department denied this), which itself could spur another set of congressional probes.
“If his intent was to tamp down the Russia story line, he did exactly the opposite,” said a top congressional aide. “He made it completely take over the conversation.”
Now Trump’s defenders are rushing to contain the political fallout for a president whose approval rating still hovers at record lows this early in his tenure. Appointing someone independent is the best chance to change the damaging political narrative of a botched attempt to stop the investigation in its tracks, they say.
“I suggest that if there is the right candidate, nominate someone internally from the FBI,” said former campaign Trump operative Sam Nunberg. He suggested that a career law enforcement official, more than someone with political experience like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, would prove the canning of Comey was about Comey, and not about Russia.
Added Stephen Stepanek, a state representative from New Hampshire who was one of Trump’s earlier supporters and remains in the president’s sphere: “It’s time to go and find someone who is unbiased. We need somebody who can restore the faith in the FBI.”
The rollout of Comey’s dismissal was unsteady from the moment press secretary Sean Spicer unexpectedly poked his head into the White House briefing room Tuesday night to make the stunning announcement. Comey discovered he had been axed via television report. And in a telling bit of imagery, Trump dispatched his longtime security chief, Keith Schiller, to hand-deliver the pink slip to FBI headquarters.
The White House also offered up conflicting explanations of how and why the firing had come about.
A letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, released by the White House, cited Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation as the rationale. And at first White House officials said the president was simply deferring to the recommendation Justice Department, and they would have no further comment Tuesday night.
But within hours, amid an avalanche of negative headlines and bipartisan outcry, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was on CNN – her first appearance on the cable news channel the president loves to hate since March. “This has nothing to do with the campaign from six months ago,” she said. “This has everything to do with the performance of the FBI director since the president has been in the White House.”
Her appearance was old-school, campaign-style combative. “It’s not a cover-up,” she said at one point, pushing back against Anderson Cooper at one point. “This had nothing to do with Russia,” she said at another.
Kevin Madden, a top Republican communications strategist in Washington D.C., called the rollout “totally reactive and seemingly unprepared.”
“You have to recognize that this is a huge decision that’s going to have a major reverberation not only through the institutions of Washington but the country overall and the public,” Madden said. “If your communications strategy for such a momentous decision is to point to Chuck Schumer, saying he’d lost confidence in Comey and tweet, then you’re not very well prepared for the deluge you’re about to face.”