President Trump informed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein of his plan to fire FBI Director James Comey before Rosenstein delivered a scathing assessment of the director's performance that was used as justification for his firing, the deputy told senators in a briefing Thursday.
The account, provided by senators following a closed-door briefing with the deputy attorney general, directly contradicts the White House's explanation for Comey's abrupt dismissal last Tuesday. It also raises new questions about whether Trump purposely solicited Rosenstein's three-page memo on Comey's controversial handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server as cover to fire the director who was overseeing a widening inquiry into possible collusion between Trump's presidential campaign and the Russian government.
"He (Rosenstein) knew the day before,'' said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of four congressional panels now exploring ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Durbin said Trump alerted Rosenstein to his decision on May 8. The deputy attorney general's memo was dated May 9, the day of Comey's dismissal. Rosenstein, however, said he was not pressured to prepare the document, Durbin said.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., offered a similar version of the timeline, saying that Rosenstein referred to the president's remarks in a recent NBC News interview in which Trump said that he had decided to fire Comey long ago.
“I think he indicated what Donald Trump has indicated,'' Cassidy said. "Mr. Trump was leaning in that direction but the final decision obviously wasn’t made until it was actually released.”
Still, less than an hour after the Rosenstein briefing had concluded Thursday, Trump again cited the deputy attorney general's "very, very strong recommendation'' as reasoning for Comey's dismissal.
"Director Comey was very unpopular with most people,'' Trump said during a news conference with Colombian President Juan Manual Santos. "I actually thought when I made that decision — and I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein. But when I made that decision, I actually thought that it would be a bipartisan decision."
It has been anything but.
Republicans and Democrats have openly questioned the timing of Trump's decision and its proximity to key developments in the Russia inquiry.
Earlier this week, it was disclosed that Comey prepared a memo indicating that Trump had pressed Comey to shut down the bureau's investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn during a private White House meeting in February. The contents of the Comey memo were described by a person who has viewed the document.
The explosive revelations, first reported by The New York Times, have prompted a flurry of letters from congressional investigating committees demanding that the FBI turn over the Comey memos as possible evidence of White House obstruction.
Trump directly addressed the matter for the first time Thursday, flatly denying that he made such a request.
"No. Next question,'' the president said during the news conference with the Colombian president.
Reflecting the fast-moving developments that have engulfed the White House in controversy in recent days, Trump's Thursday news conference and the senators' reactions to the Rosenstein briefing were being broadcast on split screens.
Many senators said that Rosenstein, who was summoned to the Senate to explain the reasoning for Comey's firing, provided few actual details about the dismissal and his contacts with the White House. But virtually all lauded the deputy attorney general's action Wednesday to appoint a special counsel to take over the Russia inquiry.
Former FBI director Robert Mueller, the longest-serving FBI chief since J. Edgar Hoover, was named by Rosenstein to lead an investigation that has trained a sharp focus on Flynn and other former Trump advisers. Democrats have long called for such an appointment and Republicans appeared to drop much of their opposition in wake of the disclosures about Trump's appeal for Comey to back off the investigation of Flynn.
"It was a good decision to appoint a special counsel,'' said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "You couldn't have picked a better man to do the job.''
Among the few people who openly expressed their disapproval was Trump himself.
"I respect the decision,'' the president said, "but this entire thing has been a witch hunt.''
Yet there were mixed reviews about whether Mueller's investigation would take precedence over the multiple congressional inquiries and the demands for Comey to provide public testimony.
Graham said Mueller's investigation had effectively "sidelined'' the congressional probes, but Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Judiciary committee's senior member, said Congress should press on.
"It’s good to have Bob Mueller, who I respect,'' Leahy said. "Congress has still got to go forward with its own investigation and should do it in a way the public can see exactly what’s being said.''
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said Congress needs to coordinate its efforts with the special counsel.
“My concern is that we not end up in a place where the special counsel doesn’t communicate to Congress for months or years a decision he’s made about the scope of the investigation,” Coons said, adding that access to witnesses must be resolved "in the next few weeks.''