President Donald Trump confirmed Thursday that his decision to fire James Comey had nothing to do with the memo written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that criticized the FBI director but didn’t call for his ouster. “Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation,” Trump confidently told NBC News’ Lester Holt. “Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”
Trump’s statement embarrassed his own White House, which on Wednesday had strenuously argued that the Rosenstein memo was the motive for Comey’s firing. “The American people expect a president to act on the recommendations of those within the administration who are charged with oversight,” Vice President Mike Pence said, “in this case the deputy attorney general provides the oversight to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
But Pence and the White House communications staff weren’t the only ones who took the Rosenstein letter at face value, and thus got clowned by Trump. A broad swath of conservative pundits, including those who ostensibly claim to be Never Trump conservatives, have taken refuge in the memo, arguing that it justifies the firing of Comey—even if Trump’s motives differed from the memo’s rationale.
“The reasoning Rosenstein lays out in his letter is airtight,” The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway wrote on Wednesday. “And it’s a good and convincing read. Comey’s failures in the investigation of Hillary Clinton are more than sufficient grounds for firing, but observers are reasonably suspicious that Trump, of all people, would fire an FBI director because the latter had been unfair to her.”
“Rosenstein’s presentation of the facts is fair and scrupulous,” National Review argued in an editorial. “Of course, Donald Trump has often been less than forthright in his public statements, and the reasons that President Trump should have fired Comey—for example, those outlined by Rosenstein—appear not to be the reasons he did.”
National Review and Hemingway also called Democrats hypocrites for criticizing Comey’s firing, given their criticism of Comey last year for his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Like Trump himself, these conservative pundits are so eager to score points on Democrats that they miss the forest for the trees.
In judging a political decision, context is everything. Trump’s motive for firing Comey does matter, because there is a world of difference between firing Comey for the reasons outlined in the Rosenstein memo—that Comey overstepped his role by announcing that Clinton wouldn’t be prosecuted while also rebuking her—or doing so to quash the FBI investigation into Russia’s interference in the election and potential ties to the Trump campaign. Given Trump’s comments to Holt, we now know that the Rosenstein memo is irrelevant. Trump already wanted to fire Comey, most likely because—as multiple reports indicate—Comey had dismissed his wiretapping claim about Barack Obama and testified to the Senate last week that the FBI was investigating Trump’s campaign.
National Review columnist David French is exactly right when he notes that Trump’s firing of Comey, “while defensible in the abstract (as my colleagues have ably argued), is profoundly, deeply flawed in context.” But all too many on the right, including French’s editors, have argued that the firing is “defensible in the abstract” and ignore the unabstract and sordid facts surrounding the firing, including the suspicious timing—Comey had just asked Rosenstein for more resources for the Russia investigation—and the lies the White House staff spun to justify it.
Hemingway and National Review editor can afford to be blasé because they think the Russia investigation will amount to little. “There’s not a lot of ‘there’ to the Russia investigation,” Hemingway asserts. But even if this proves true—and Republicans in Congress are doing everything in their power to see that it does—Trump may well be trying to stonewall for another reason, either out of general paranoia or a specific fear of an embarrassing revelation unconnected to Russia. In that case, the coverup might be worse than the crime, but the coverup would still be a crime.
Hemingway is also eager to assuage readers worried that Trump was spiking an ongoing investigation. “Media commentators worried about the investigations seem to think that Comey was personally leading an investigation of Trump, rather than the bureau investigating Trump associates and any potential ties with Russia,” she argues. “Comey wasn’t personally leading that investigation, but the agency performing the investigations. As such, those investigations will continue.” This point was directly contradicted by deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said at Thursday’s White House briefing that Comey’s firing would hasten the conclusion of the Russia investigation.
Hemingway and National Review are emblematic of the broader right, whose consensus is that firing Comey was justified, whatever the motive. Indeed, the story is bringing together the alt-right populists at Breitbart, Trump sycophants at Fox News, and GOP establishmentarians at National Review. These outlets don’t always agree, but they’re united by an irresistible urge to bash Democrats. Trump knows his audience:
Here, Trump has something in common with the “anti-anti-Trump” stance that many Never Trump conservatives have adopted since the election: Unable to defend Trump, they recast any debate as being about Democratic misconduct. It’s an attempt to retain ideological credibility without being tainted by outright support for Trump.
But the charge of Democratic hypocrisy can easily be flipped. After all, before defending Trump’s sacking of Comey, National Review often defended the former FBI director from liberal critics, arguing just a week ago that “Clinton should be thanking [Comey] for not suggesting she be indicted.” The Rosenstein memo echoes many Democratic criticisms of Comey that National Review previously dismissed. Now, out of political expedience, they declare Rosenstein’s memo to be “convincing.”
It would be easy to accuse National Review and other conservative outlets of their own hypocrisy. But liberals have largely avoided this tedious game of tu quoque because they realize there is a much bigger issue at play here: Is the president abusing his power in the service of a coverup? Until conservatives weigh this question, they don’t even deserve rebuke, only blanket dismissal.