President Donald Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey marked a turning point in the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
Trump began pestering Comey about the Russia investigation before Trump even took office. During the January 6, 2017, meeting in which intelligence community leaders briefed Trump on their investigation into Russia’s election interference, Trump asked Comey to publicly announce that the FBI was not investigating Trump personally. Comey later testified to Congress that the conversation sufficiently unsettled him that he “felt compelled to document [his] first conversation with the President-Elect in a memo … the moment [he] walked out of the meeting.” According to Comey’s memos and his subsequent congressional testimony, Trump personally asked Comey to publicly announce that the FBI was not specifically investigating Trump three more times, on January 27, March 30, and April 11, 2017.
Comey also documented a February 14, 2017 conversation about the departure of Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn during which Trump said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Comey felt that the request was equivalent to an instruction to end the investigation; the White House disputed Comey’s characterization but did not contest the details of his account, asserting, “the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn.”
On May 3, Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the intelligence community had concluded that Russia was responsible for the DNC hack, but refused to comment on the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
On May 9, just days after Comey asked the Justice Department for a significant increase in money and personnel for the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the election, Trump fired Comey in a letter that thanked Comey for “informing [Trump] on three separate occasions that [Trump was] not under investigation.” Comey, who was in Los Angeles at the time speaking to FBI employees, learned he had been fired because he saw the news on a television in the room, and reportedly initially believed it was a prank.
The White House’s initial explanation was that Trump had decided to fire Comey after his Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein conducted a review of the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Clinton’s private email server and concluded that Comey’s public comments on the matter breached the bureau’s protocols. The letter, which argues that the FBI was unnecessarily harsh in its treatment of Clinton, directly contradicted Trump’s repeated calls for the Justice Department to prosecute Clinton over the private email server.
The official explanation soon fell apart as it became increasingly clear that Trump had fired Comey to impede the Russia investigation. On May 10, the day after firing Comey, Trump told the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov that the former FBI Director was “crazy, a real nut job,” and bragged that firing Comey had “taken off” the “great pressure” the Russia investigation created. On May 11, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that he had planned to fire Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s conclusion, and that he was considering “this Russia thing” when he decided to do so.
That same day, The New York Times reported that Trump had asked Comey three times to publicly announce that the FBI was not investigating Trump. In response, Trump tweeted that Comey “better hope there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Trump’s apparent effort to end the investigation did not work. On May 18, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in charge of the Russia investigation after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal, testified in a closed-door Senate briefing that he knew Trump intended to fire Comey before writing the letter providing Trump a justification to do so. On June 8, Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. In his testimony, Comey said that he felt Trump had sought to create a “patronage relationship” and “directed” Comey to end the Flynn investigation, and that he had written detailed memos following his conversations with Trump out of concern that “[Trump] might lie about the nature of our meeting.” Comey also confirmed that he had helped leak the memos to the press to ensure the appointment of a special counsel.
Trump continued to weigh in on Comey and Rosenstein’s statements via Twitter. On June 16, Trump confirmed via tweet that he was under investigation “for firing the FBI Director.” On June 22, more than a month after he first implied he had recorded his meetings with Comey, Trump tweeted that he had no takes of the conversations. And on July 10, Trump tweeted that Comey had “leaked CLASSIFIED INFORMATION to the media. That is so illegal!” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later repeated the charge on September 12, 2017, calling for Comey to be criminally prosecuted for leaking information about his conversations with Trump.
In April 2018, James Comey released A Higher Loyalty, discussing his experiences over the past several decades as the director of the FBI and a U.S. attorney. Several days later, Comey’s declassified memos detailing his time in the Trump administration were sent to Congress by the Department of Justice, and released to the public.