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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, December 28, 2017 1:00 am

Tweets blur message on Comey firing

Trump seems to undercut rationale

ERIC TUCKER | Associated Press

WASHINGTON – When President Donald Trump fired James Comey in May, he said he was acting on the recommendation of Justice Department leaders who had faulted the FBI director for releasing “derogatory information” about Hillary Clinton at the conclusion of the email server investigation months earlier.

Yet with each tweet about the Clinton probe, Trump seems to be further undermining his administration's stated rationale for a termination that's now central to special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

The disconnect between Trump's attacks on Comey's handling of the email investigation and the criticism of Comey by his own Justice Department could muddy the explanation for exactly why Comey was fired, and may complicate efforts by the president's legal team to present a coherent narrative as Mueller and his prosecutors examine whether the dismissal could support obstruction of justice allegations.

Trump has complained for months about the FBI's decision not to pursue criminal charges against Clinton for her use of a personal email server. He has suggested the criminal investigation was rigged in her favor, claiming in one October tweet that Comey “totally protected” her.

He recently seized on the revelation of politically charged text messages from an FBI agent who worked on that probe to again deride the investigation. And in a Saturday tweet that appeared to suggest Clinton should have been prosecuted, Trump caustically referred to “33,000 illegally deleted emails.”

Yet those attacks are increasingly hard to square with a Justice Department memo that the White House held up as justification for firing Comey.

That document, authored by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, cited an unusual July 2016 news conference in which Comey described Clinton and her aides as “extremely careless” as well as Comey's notification to Congress, days before the election, that the investigation was being revisited because of the sudden discovery of additional emails.

“From the beginning, there's always been serious doubt that the memo from the deputy attorney general was the actual reason the president fired the FBI director,” said Scott Fredericksen, a Washington criminal defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor. “These tweets,” he added, “probably don't help the president in that regard.”

Mueller's team has been interested for months in the circumstances of Comey's firing, with prosecutors obtaining an initial White House memo, drafted but never released, that purported to lay out a basis for Comey's removal.

“The Director laid out his version of the facts (in the Clinton probe) for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial,” Rosenstein wrote. “It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”

In a letter to Comey, Trump said he had accepted the recommendation for termination.