Here's what I have been able to glean so far about the decision to fire FBI Director James Comey:
During the transition, there were members of the Trump team involved with justice and law enforcement issues who felt Comey should be fired. They believed Comey had badly screwed up the Hillary Clinton investigation — first to Trump's detriment, on July 5, when he essentially laid out an indictment of Clinton but concluded by saying no charges would be brought, and later to Trump's benefit, on Oct. 28, just 11 days before the election, when he re-opened the Clinton investigation. And then, on the Sunday before election day, Comey meekly said "never mind," as if he had not just intervened in a presidential election.
It's not that the Trump team members who had experience in law enforcement issues were angry that Comey had at times hurt or helped Trump's chances. Looking ahead, the issue was that Comey seemed inconsistent and a weak leader. "All over the map," said one person involved in the transition. "A mess all the way through," said a lawmaker who supports Trump.
But those same Trump team members who believed Comey should go also believed there should be a process involved in doing it. Truth be told, not all of them — some wanted to see Trump fire everybody on Jan. 21: U.S. attorneys, ambassadors, Obama holdovers, everybody. But the more institutionally-minded members of the Trump team wanted to see a process observed. In the case of removing Comey, that involved going through the chain of command.
The structure was this: The FBI director reported to the deputy attorney general, who reported to the attorney general, who reported to the president. When Trump fired Comey Tuesday afternoon, that chain of command had been in place for all of 14 days.
First, it took a long time to get an attorney general in office. Facing Democratic opposition, Jeff Sessions, one of the president's first nominees, was not confirmed by the Senate until Feb. 8. Then, it took a long time to get a deputy attorney general in place. Rod Rosenstein, the deputy — and the man who wrote the rationale for axing Comey — faced similar Democratic delays and was not sworn in until April 26.
Only after Rosenstein was in place did the Trump team move ahead. That was true not only for chain-of-command reasons but also — probably more importantly — because Rosenstein had the bipartisan street cred to be able to be the point man in firing Comey. Even though his confirmation was delayed, Rosenstein was eventually confirmed by the Senate by a 94 to 6 vote, meaning that the vast majority of Democratic senators voted for him along with all of the Republicans.
How important was the arrival of Rosenstein to the bid to fire Comey? This, from a source in a Senate office Wednesday morning: "Many who are suggesting that there's something nefarious about the timing of the Comey firing are likely missing the fact that DAG Rosenstein was sworn in two weeks ago (April 26), and that the FBI Director reports to the DAG on the DOJ org chart. It seems completely normal that the DAG would review their top reports within the first couple weeks of starting."
Discount the part about "completely normal" — firing the FBI director, who has a ten-year term and was conducting a high-profile investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election that touches on the president, was not a routine act. The point is, it took the arrival of Rosenstein to do it.
Where was President Trump on this? He was certainly part of discussions during the transition that included the Comey issue. But in his public statements, he was — true to form — unpredictable. Some who favored firing Comey were surprised by reports, just three days into the presidency, that Trump would keep the FBI director.
Of course, it is not news that people in the Trump circle are sometimes surprised by what the president says. It's also not news that when Trump says something, it's entirely possible that his organization, in this case the administration, is working on policy that is entirely different. "That's Trump saying stuff because he says stuff," says a Justice Department veteran who is not in the Trump circle. "And underneath, the policy is being made."
And besides, the president himself sent signals recently that Comey might not be entirely safe. In an April 12 interview, Fox Business' Maria Bartiromo asked Trump, "Was it a mistake not to ask Jim Comey to step down from the FBI at the outset of your presidency? Is it too late now to ask him to step down?"
"No, it's not too late," Trump answered. "But I have confidence at him, we'll see what happens. It's going to be interesting."
When Bartiromo asked again why Comey was still on the job, the president responded, "Because I want to give everybody a good, fair chance."
Does that sound like a ringing endorsement? It wasn't.
Now, despite having waited to observe the chain of command and have a deputy attorney general with bipartisan support carry out the firing, Trump is in a storm of controversy. How could he have expected otherwise? Democrats who just months ago wanted Comey fired are now comparing Trump's action to the Saturday Night Massacre. Given the intensity of partisan feelings over the Russia affair, the president undoubtedly knew that they would.
Certainly others did. In the first days of the administration, Michael Mukasey, attorney general under President George W. Bush, called on the president to fire Comey over Comey's mishandling of the Clinton case. Later, in March, Mukasey appeared on Fox, where Bartiromo asked him, "Are you surprised Jim Comey is still on his job?"
"I thought that the opportunity to ask him to leave was when the new administration came in," Mukasey said.
"That didn't happen."
"That didn't happen," Mukasey agreed, "and it can't really happen now because [Comey] has gotten himself embroiled in a dispute and it would look like he's being fired for political reasons."