The cred­i­bil­ity cri­sis that plagues the White House

The Washington Post Sunday - - NEWS - Dan Balz dan.balz@wash­post.com

The fir­ing of James B. Comey as di­rec­tor of the FBI has left the cred­i­bil­ity of Pres­i­dent Trump’s White House in tat­ters. The White House now ap­pears to be an in­sti­tu­tion where truth strug­gles to keep up with events, led by a pres­i­dent ca­pa­ble at any mo­ment of un­der­cut­ting those who serve him.

This past week wasn’t the first time that the pres­i­dent’s spokes­peo­ple have been asked to ex­plain the in­ex­pli­ca­ble or de­fend the in­de­fen­si­ble. But what it showed is that this is far more than a prob­lem with the White House com­mu­ni­ca­tions team, which ini­tially bore the brunt of crit­i­cism for of­fer­ing what turned out to be an in­ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion of how the pres­i­dent came to dis­miss Comey. Whether the com­mu­ni­ca­tions team is or isn’t fully in the loop is not the per­ti­nent is­sue.

In­stead, the re­spon­si­bil­ity for what has been one of the most ex­plo­sive weeks of the Trump pres­i­dency be­gins at the top, with the pres­i­dent, whose state­ments and tweets reg­u­larly shat­ter what­ever plans have been laid for the day or week.

It in­cludes Vice Pres­i­dent Pence, who in an ap­pear­ance on Capi­tol Hill quadru­pled down on what turned out to be, at its most be­nign in­ter­pre­ta­tion, an in­com­plete and there­fore mis­lead­ing de­scrip­tion of how the de­ci­sion was made. It in­cludes White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who must try to bring dis­ci­pline to White House op­er­a­tions in the face of a pres­i­dent with a prac­tice of frus­trat­ing those ef­forts and who then blames oth­ers when things go bad.

For Pence, this is the se­cond time in four months that he has gone out in pub­lic with a de­scrip­tion of events that turned out not to be fully ac­cu­rate. In Jan­uary, he was flat-out wrong when he vouched for Michael Flynn about whether the then­na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser had dis­cussed sanc­tions against Rus­sia in a tele­phone call with Rus­sian Am­bas­sador Sergey Kislyak. In that case, Pence re­peated what Flynn had told him when Flynn was not telling him the truth. Chalk that up to mis­placed con­fi­dence in an un­trust­wor­thy col­league who is now in le­gal jeop­ardy.

On Wednes­day, Pence did some­thing dif­fer­ent. He went to Capi­tol Hill and in a brief scrum with re­porters de­scribed the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process that led to Comey’s dis­missal as one that orig­i­nated at the Jus­tice Depart­ment and moved up to the chain of com­mand to the pres­i­dent for ac­tion. This wasn’t a state­ment made in pass­ing. Four dif­fer­ent times he pointed to the Jus­tice Depart­ment as the cat­a­lyst and cited Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod J. Rosen­stein’s memo cri­tiquing Comey’s han­dling of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Hil­lary Clin­ton’s use of a pri­vate email server while she was sec­re­tary of state as be­ing crit­i­cally in­flu­en­tial.

As Pence ex­plained it, Rosen­stein re­cently “came in [to the Jus­tice Depart­ment], sat down and made the rec­om­men­da­tion for the FBI to be able to do its job that it would need new lead­er­ship. He brought that rec­om­men­da­tion to the pres­i­dent. The at­tor­ney gen­eral [Jeff Ses­sions] con­curred with that rec­om­men­da­tion.” Pence said the pres­i­dent’s role was to act on that rec­om­men­da­tion, say­ing Trump pro­vided “strong and de­ci­sive lead­er­ship” in fol­low­ing the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s ad­vice.

Ev­ery­one now knows there was much more to the se­quence of events, based on re­port­ing by news or­ga­ni­za­tions. The Post, cit­ing many sources, re­ported that the pres­i­dent had told his se­nior staff Mon­day morn­ing he wanted to move against Comey — hours be­fore his meet­ing with Rosen­stein and Ses­sions. On Thurs­day, the pres­i­dent told NBC’s Lester Holt he had made up his mind to fire Comey be­fore he heard from the Jus­tice Depart­ment and that, no mat­ter what Ses­sions and Rosen­stein rec­om­mended, he was go­ing to do so.

Pence said the de­ci­sion had ev­ery­thing to do with restor­ing con­fi­dence in the FBI and that it had noth­ing to do with the FBI’s on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion and whether there was col­lu­sion between as­so­ci­ates of Trump’s cam­paign and the Rus­sians. But the pres­i­dent told Holt that, when he was de­cid­ing to fire Comey, “I said to my­self, I said, ‘You know, this Rus­sia thing with Trump and Rus­sia is a made-up story; it’s an ex­cuse by the Democrats for hav­ing lost an elec­tion that they should have won.’ ”

Pence can­not know what is in the pres­i­dent’s mind at any given time, but he did know that the pres­i­dent had in­cluded in the brief let­ter to Comey a ref­er­ence to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the claim that he had been told by the FBI di­rec­tor that he was not un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Rus­sia was cer­tainly in the back­ground, even if the pres­i­dent did not ex­plic­itly say that to Pence.

A spokesman for the vice pres­i­dent de­clined to speak for the record on the mat­ter. But he said that Pence “stands by what he said. … He made it clear it was the pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sion. He made it clear a lot of it had to do with con­fi­dence. … His main point was com­mend­ing the pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sive ac­tion.”

Pence has prided him­self on be­ing a truth-teller, no easy job given that he has been asked of­ten to stand up for a pres­i­dent who has of­ten made fac­tu­ally in­ac­cu­rate state­ments. He did him­self lit­tle good in this episode. White House deputy press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders strug­gled dur­ing brief­ings to pro­vide an ac­cu­rate ac­count­ing of events. But Pence was sup­pos­edly in the mid­dle of the dis­cus­sions that led to Comey’s fir­ing.

Priebus, the for­mer Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee chair­man, al­most from the be­gin­ning has been a tar­get of crit­i­cism of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, thanks in part to the ini­tial or­ga­ni­za­tional de­ci­sions by the pres­i­dent-elect.

Trump es­tab­lished a White House with few clear lines of au­thor­ity, com­pet­ing power cen­ters and, as it turned out, fight­ing fac­tions. No one knows what truly goes on be­hind the scenes, what ef­forts se­nior of­fi­cials are mak­ing to con­strain the pres­i­dent, the times they are able to head off prob­lems. What is known to the world at large is what is said and seen in pub­lic. By that mea­sure, this has been an ex­tremely messy week.

Af­ter the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s rocky start, Priebus may have be­lieved he was gain­ing greater con­trol of the White House op­er­a­tions and staff, at least in lim­ited ways. What he hasn’t solved is the in­dis­ci­pline of the pres­i­dent. With days of con­tro­versy and con­flict­ing state­ments over the Comey fir­ing, it seems ev­i­dent there may be no way to bring real or­der to the White House of Pres­i­dent Trump.

The let­ter from the pres­i­dent to Comey laid the foun­da­tion for the story that Comey’s fir­ing was trig­gered by the rec­om­men­da­tions of Rosen­stein and Ses­sions. “I have re­ceived the at­tached let­ters from the At­tor­ney Gen­eral and Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral of the United States rec­om­mend­ing your dis­missal as the Di­rec­tor of the Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion,” Trump wrote. “I have ac­cepted their rec­om­men­da­tion and you are hereby ter­mi­nated and re­moved from of­fice, ef­fec­tive im­me­di­ately.”

Within 48 hours, the pres­i­dent un­der­mined that as­ser­tion dur­ing his in­ter­view with Holt, the ef­fect of which was to com­pro­mise all the se­nior of­fi­cials in the chain of de­ci­sion­mak­ing. How­ever, it’s also pos­si­ble there is a some­what dif­fer­ent ex­pla­na­tion than the one he gave to Holt, one the pres­i­dent’s ad­vis­ers can­not say them­selves with­out un­der­min­ing their boss.

Per­haps Trump has played down the in­flu­ence of his Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials as a way of el­e­vat­ing him­self, when, in ac­tu­al­ity, it took the re­as­sur­ances from Rosen­stein and Ses­sions to prompt him to move im­me­di­ately. Maybe he would have fired Comey on Tues­day no mat­ter what. Or maybe not. In ei­ther case, the no­tion that Comey was fired be­cause he mis­han­dled the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Clin­ton’s emails, as the orig­i­nal ra­tio­nale sug­gested, doesn’t hold up.

Only those around the pres­i­dent know the full story of the fir­ing and, more broadly, of the pres­i­dent’s style and op­er­at­ing be­hav­ior and what it is like day-to-day be­hind the scenes. But much more than prob­lems within the com­mu­ni­ca­tions shop are be­hind the cred­i­bil­ity cri­sis that plagued Trump’s White House this past week.

JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS

Vice Pres­i­dent Pence speaks to re­porters at the U.S. Capi­tol the day af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump fired for­mer FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey.

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