WASHINGTON – Despite President Trump's repeated assertions that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's scathing memo provided the foundation for last week's abrupt dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, the deputy attorney general told Congress Friday that the document was not actually offered to justify the firing – nor was it meant to be made public.
"My memorandum is not a statement of reasons to justify a for-cause termination,'' Rosenstein told lawmakers, according to prepared remarks released by the Justice Department Friday. "My memorandum is not a press release.''
So far, this is Rosenstein's most public rebuttal of the narrative the White House is pushing about Comey's firing – which came as the FBI widened its investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the presidential election.
The three-page memorandum Rosenstein prepared for Trump was sharply critical of Comey's handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server. It was immediately released by the White House last week along with Comey's termination letter.
In remarks to Senate and House members in separate closed sessions this week, the deputy attorney general acknowledged that he learned of Trump's decision to remove Comey the day before he wrote and delivered his May 9 assessment about Comey's conduct in the Clinton probe. Comey was fired later that same day.
Even though Trump has said he would have fired Comey regardless of Justice Department recommendations, he is still citing Rosenstein and his memo specifically to bolster his justification for recommendation to do so. As recently as Thursday, at the same time Rosenstein was briefing the Senate, Trump in a White House press conference 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."
Yet Trump's version of the story took another hit on Friday, when the The New York Times reported that Trump described Comey as a "nut job'' during a White House meeting last week with Russian officials. Trump told the Russians, according to the report, that dismissing Comey meant the pressure of the FBI's Russia probe has been "taken off."
Even as Rosenstein insisted to lawmakers he didn't lay the groundwork for Comey's firing, he also noted that he and Attorney General Jeff Sessions first "discussed the need for new leadership at the FBI" late last year during an initial meeting with then-Alabama Sen. Sessions, as the attorney general nominee was forming a management team.
"Among the concerns that I recall were to restore the credibility of the FBI, respect the established authority of the Department of Justice, limit public statements and eliminate leaks,'' Rosenstein said of that conversation.
In his written assessment of Comey, the deputy attorney general specifically took issue with Comey's July 5 remarks to announce his agency's recommendation that no criminal charges be brought against Clinton.
"I thought the July 5 press conference was profoundly wrong and unfair both to the Department of Justice and Secretary Clinton,'' Rosenstein told lawmakers. "It explicitly usurped the role of the attorney general, the deputy attorney general and the entire Department of Justice. It violated deeply en-grained rules and traditions; and it guaranteed that some people would accuse the FBI of interfering in the election.''
Rosenstein indicated that no outside party directed the content of his memo, which he further described as "a candid internal memorandum about the FBI director's public statement concerning a high-profile criminal investigation.'' (The White House has said, however, that Trump met with Rosenstein and Sessions and asked that they put their thoughts into writing.)
Some lawmakers, however, have suggested that Trump is using the Rosenstein memo as cover for firing the FBI director because of his pursuit of the Russia investigation. "He (Rosenstein) either has no understanding that his memo was used as a cover up or he doesn’t want to take any accountability for it,'' Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said after attending the deputy attorney general's Thursday briefing.
Rosenstein announced the appointment of a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, to take over the Russia inquiry earlier this week. That investigation took on even more prominence on Friday when The Washington Post reported Friday that a White House adviser close to the president — whose name was not included in the report — has been identified as a "person of interest" in the investigation of possible collusion between Trump's presidential campaign and Russians.
Rosenstein's account of Comey's firing also comes as associates of the former FBI director have outlined Comey's deep suspicion of Trump and the president's repeated efforts to directly communicate with him as the Russia inquiry moved forward.
Earlier this week, people close to Comey revealed that he 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 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 of justice. Trump has flatly denied the assertion. Yet Comey associates have said that the FBI director was so uncomfortable with Trump's contacts that he prepared written memos of every contact with the president, including a Jan. 27 dinner in which Trump allegedly asked Comey for a pledge of loyalty.
One Comey associate, Benjamin Wittes, said Trump's outreach to the director was "designed to absorb (Comey) into Trump's world – to make him part of the team.''
"He (Comey) told me that Trump sometimes talked to him (in) a fashion designed to implicate him in Trump's way of thinking. While I was not sure quite what this meant, it clearly disquieted Comey. He felt that these conversations were efforts to probe how resistant he would be to becoming a loyalist. In light of the dramatic dinner meeting and the Flynn request, it's easy to see why they would be upsetting and feel like attempts at pressure.''
Even though the White House has denied Trump ever asked for a loyalty pledge, Wittes went as far as to decribe Comey as "disgusted'' with Trump's efforts to "personally compromise him or implicate him with either shows of closeness or actual chumminess with the president.'' Wittes said Comey felt particularly uncomfortable during a post-inaugural ceremony at the White House honoring security officials when the president called the FBI director forward for a "hug.''
"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.''
Wittes said Comey also expressed "wariness" about Rosenstein.
At a lunch meeting with the director, Wittes raised Rosenstein's pending nomination as deputy attorney general as positive development for the Justice Department.
"But Comey did not seem enthusiastic,'' Wittes wrote, adding that Comey described the career federal prosecutor as a "survivor.''
He said Comey referred to Rosenstein's long tenure that has spanned Republican and Democrat administrations as not possible without compromises.
"So I have concerns,'' Wittes said Comey told him.