The intrigue surrounding President Donald Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey grew deeper Thursday as a friend said Comey had expressed concerns about the independence of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who played a controversial role in Comey’s dismissal.
Lawfare blog editor-in-chief Ben Wittes wrote that he’d had a series of conversations with Comey in recent months, sometimes discussing the FBI director’s concerns that Trump was ignoring longstanding procedures limiting contacts between the White House and FBI about ongoing investigations.
In a blog post Thursday night, Wittes said that at a March 27 lunch meeting Comey expressed concerns about Rosenstein, who served as U.S. attorney for Maryland under both the George W. Bush and Obama administration and was then awaiting confirmation as deputy attorney general.
"His reservations were palpable. ‘Rod is a survivor,’ he said. And you don’t get to survive that long across administrations without making compromises. ‘So I have concerns,’" Wittes wrote, describing his conversation with Comey.
Rosenstein, who was confirmed April 25, has come under fire from Democrats for providing cover for Trump’s firing of Comey. Trump has said he decided to fire Comey before seeking what the president and his aides have called "recommendations" from Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Rosenstein briefed senators in an unusual closed-door, Senate-wide meeting Thursday and acknowledged that he knew the decision to fire Comey had been made at the time Rosenstein drafted his memo faulting Comey’s conduct in the Clinton email investigation.
Wittes also said that Comey expressed discomfort with an awkward public hug Trump gave him during a televised encounter at the White House two days after the inauguration.
"Comey took the long walk across the room determined, he told me, that there was not going to be a hug. Bad enough that he was there; bad enough that there would be a handshake; he emphatically did not want any show of warmth," Wittes wrote. "Look at the video, and you’ll see Comey preemptively reaching out to shake hands. Trump grabs his hand and attempts an embrace … Comey was disgusted. He regarded the episode as a physical attempt to show closeness and warmth in a fashion calculated to compromise him before Democrats who already mistrusted him."
Earlier Thursday, Wittes shared details of his conversations with the New York Times. It reported Thursday night, citing unnamed sources, that Trump called Comey a few weeks after the inauguration and asked when the FBI would announce that Trump was not personally under investigation as part of the probe into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia. Comey told Trump to make any contacts through the White House counsel, the sources told the Times.