The pending release of a book from former acting Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe, and an interview with 60 Minutes McCabe has done to promote the book, have placed fresh emphasis on a few days in the middle of May 2017—days in which the Justice Department seriously considered mounting an effort to dislodge Trump from office. For eight days, between the time FBI Director James Comey was fired and the time special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed, it appears that the threat of the government being ripped in half was very real.
Even at the time, the events of that period seemed chaotic, and as more information has appeared over the passing months, it’s become clear that the public saw only the slightest hint of what was happening behind closed doors. During this period:
- Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein fretted about the real reasons that Comey was fired. He reportedly lost sleep over his role in preparing a memo used as a cover story, felt “used” by the White House, worried that he had done damage to the country, and offered to wear a wire in meetings with Trump.
- Rather than closing the existing investigation into Trump and Russia, the FBI under McCabe opened two new investigations: one into Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice, and one into whether or not Donald Trump was a knowing operative of Russia intentionally damaging American interests.
- Top officials in the Justice Department met—more than once—to seriously discuss whether it would be possible to gain the support of Mike Pence and a majority of Trump’s Cabinet for having him declared unfit for office under provisions of the 25th Amendment.
What’s emerging is a picture in which the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller by Rosenstein on May 17, 2017, was not at all an attack on Trump, but a desperate compromise; a bid to hold the nation’s leadership together by offering a means for going forward rather than sinking into competing star-chamber factions. As strange as it may seem, the appointment of Mueller may have actually kept Trump in office, at least temporarily, and it almost certainly saved the nation from even greater chaos.
With that in mind, and with the new information that’s become available since that time, here’s a fresh look at a few extraordinary days in May 2017.
May 3, 2017 — FBI Director James Comey requests more resources for the Russia investigation, and lets it be known that he is receiving daily updates on the progress of the investigation.
May 4-7, 2017 — Over the weekend, Donald Trump and White House Adviser Stephen Miller draft an angry letter firing FBI Director James Comey explicitly because of his failure to halt the investigation into Trump’s connections to Russia. This follows a meeting between Trump, Miller, and Jared Kushner in which they agree Comey should be fired. The draft letter is described as several pages of “angry, meandering, menacing screed.” It’s a lengthy rant that explicitly attacks Comey on a personal basis and makes multiple claims about the FBI and the Russia investigation.
May 8, 2017 — Trump shows off the termination letter around the White House, where it is seen by a number of officials including Mike Pence. Alarmed by the contents of the letter, White House Counsel Don McGahn throws himself in the path of the letter before Trump can send it to Comey. At McGahn’s insistence, Trump meets with Attorney General Jefferson Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Sessions agrees that the letter can’t be used. He gives Rosenstein a copy of the original letter and instructs him to draft a new memo justifying why Comey should be dismissed. Rosenstein works overnight, constructing a three page memo focused on what he considers Comey’s overreaching during the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, including making a public statement about the conclusions and issuing the last minute news that he was reopening the investigation—actions that likely gave handed Trump his electoral margin. Trump instructs Rosenstein to mention the Russia investigation in the memo and absolve him of any crime, but Rosenstein does not.
May 9, 2017 — Rosenstein’s memo is delivered to Trump early in the morning and a second, very brief, termination letter is drafted. Trump doesn’t talk directly about Russia, but does insert a claim into the new letter that Comey told him three times he was not under investigation. Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller places a copy of the second letter on Comey’s desk while the FBI director is on his way to the West Coast. Trump calls Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to talk to them about the firing. He does not call Comey. Comey learns of his firing from a televised report while in the midst of addressing FBI recruits. Andrew McCabe becomes acting FBI director. McCabe allows Comey to return to Washington on a government plane, even though Trump wanted to force him to fly home commercial at his own cost.
May 10, 2017 — Trump phones McCabe to express his anger that Comey was allowed to fly home, he threatens McCabe and calls his wife “a loser.” The White House issues a statement that Comey had “lost the support” of rank and file members of the FBI, an assertion that is rapidly denied by reports from FBI offices across the country. That same day, Trump has an Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, where he tells them “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job.” Trump then reassures the Russian officials that “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” He tells Kislyak and Lavrov that he is no longer under investigation for his Russia connections. Sanders insists that the memo was Rosenstein’s idea, and expresses complete confidence in him. Based on White House reports, multiple news sources run stories that Comey was fired because “of concerns expressed by Sessions and Rosenstein.”
May 11, 2017 — Trump conducts an interview with NBC reporter Lester Holt. During that interview, Trump says he decided to fire Comey because “I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.” A White House statement issued after the interview airs says that firing Comey is intended to allow the Russia investigation to “come to its conclusion with integrity”. Sarah Sanders repeats this assertion in a brief discussion with the press. Despite the widespread deployment of the statement, Trump later claims that NBC “fudged” the interview. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy states that Trump’s actions aren’t “anywhere close to normal” while Trump tweets that Russia is “laughing up its sleeve” as the nation is “torn apart” which at this moment seems very close to true.
May 12, 2017 — Trump warns Comey against “leaking to the press” concerning any of their conversations. Trump suggests that he made “tapes” of what was said. However, Comey later acknowledges that he made memos of his conversations with Trump, written directly after each meeting, and forwarded copies of those memos to make sure they wouldn’t conveniently disappear. Included in those memos were Trump’s demands for personal loyalty, the insistence on dropping any investigation into Michael Flynn, and multiple requests that Comey guarantee Trump is not personally under investigation. Trump also complains that the “fake news” is working overtime, and threatens to “cancel all future press briefings.” On May 12, Trump also begins interviewing potential replacement FBI directors, including Joe Lieberman.
May 13–14, 2017 — Over the weekend, much of the news is diverted from the Comey story and the boiling unrest in Washington when torch-carrying Nazis invade Charlottesville, Virginia and make it clear they consider Trump’s victory to be their victory.
May 14, 2017 — Trump says he sees nothing wrong with forcing federal employees to take an oath of personal loyalty. He once again suggests that he has recordings of his conversations with Comey.
May 15, 2017 — The White House continues to hint that Trump taped Comey, and has damaging information that can be used against the former FBI director. Spokesman Sean Spicer refuses to say whether Trump taped either the meetings in which Trump tried to force Comey into professing his loyalty, or phone calls Trump made to Comey at the FBI. Comey insists that he did not offer Trump assurance that he was not under investigation, despite the claims in Trump’s termination letter. With the firing of Comey, Trump’s poll numbers take the sharpest dive since the election, leading some Republicans to wonder if it’s time to look for the exists.
May 16, 2017 — Chuck Schumer demands a transcript of Trump’s meeting with Russian officlals, as Trump defends sharing top secret information in his meeting with Kislyak and Lavrov. Trump claims “an absolute right” to give this information to Russia if he wants. On the same day, Vladimir Putin provides an interview in which he defends Trump, saying that the didn’t give him anything valuable. Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that Trump asked Comey to shut down the Russia investigation and senior staff at the White House admit that they are afraid to allow Trump to make decisions on his own.
Unknown Date — Some time following Comey’s dismissal, Rosenstein attended a meeting with officials in which he repeatedly expressed anger over how the White House had used him to justify firing Comey and claimed that the White House “manipulated him.” Rosenstein offers to wear a wire in future meetings with Trump, a statement that one source puts off as humor, while others insist was serious. Justice Department leadership including Rosenstein and McCabe discuss whether it would be possible to obtain the support of Mike Pence and a majority of the cabinet to remove Trump as unfit under the 25th Amendment.
May 17, 2017 — Rosenstein appoints Mueller as special counsel. The action is immediately praised by officials and legislators on both sides of the aisle — but not by Trump, who claims the appointment “hurts our country terribly.” The appointment letter gives Mueller broad powers to investigate both any conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, and other crimes discovered during the investigation.