Did President Trump decide to fire FBI Director James Comey on the basis of the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein? Though a basic yes-or-no question, it's one that the White House answers differently depending on the day of the week.
The two-day drama stems from the efforts of administration staff to square their previous statements with the shifting narrative coming out of the Oval Office. It hasn't been going well.
On Thursday, Trump insisted that he made the firing decision on his own, independent of advice from the Department of Justice. "Rosenstein made a recommendation," he told NBC during a sit-down interview, "but regardless of [that] recommendation, I was going to fire Comey."
That answer seems to completely contradict statements from both Vice President Mike Pence and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
On Capitol Hill Wednesday, Pence told reporters that Trump had made a "decision to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general."
Sanders repeated that reasoning during a Morning Joe interview earlier in the day on MSNBC: "I think it's real simple," she said. "The deputy attorney general … made a very strong recommendation. The president followed it, and he made a quick and decisive action to fire James Comey."
That "real simple" story became real complicated when Trump gave his conflicting explanation to NBC's Lester Hold Thursday morning.
During a media briefing Thursday afternoon, Sanders tried to explain how her first version of the story could vary so differently from the president's narrative. Her answer? She was operating off of yesterday's information.
After speaking with the president before the briefing, Sanders clarified her story. "The recommendation that he got from the deputy attorney general further solidified his decision and again reaffirmed that he made the right one," she said. Or put another way, Trump wasn't so much looking for advice as he was looking for confirmation of his decision to ax Comey.
Sanders bristled when reporters insinuated that the White House was using Rosenstein as fall guy. "I don't think there was ever an attempt to the pin the decision on the deputy attorney general," she said less than 48 hours after telling MSNBC that the president was following Rosenstein's recommendation.
This is more than a semantic exercise. If the president knew he was going to fire Comey before Rosenstein offered his recommendation, who told the vice president and Sanders that Trump acted on the advice of the deputy attorney general?
Clearly, Republicans and Democrats want some clarification on this. Late Thursday evening, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer invited Rosenstein to brief the Senate on the decision to give Comey the boot. While it's still not clear whether he will accept the invitation, only one thing remains certain: As the Washington Examiner reported, Rosenstein never explicitly recommended firing the FBI director.
Philip Wegmann is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.