WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s explanation for why he fired FBI Director James Comey has shifted again.
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s new attorney, said in an interview on Fox News that Trump fired Comey last year because Comey would not state “that he wasn’t a target” of the special counsel’s Russia investigation. He said Trump felt that he was treated worse than Hillary Clinton, who was publicly cleared of criminal wrongdoing at an unusual FBI headquarters news conference in July 2016.
“He fired Comey because Comey would not, among other things, say that he wasn’t a target of the investigation,” Giuliani said. “He’s entitled to that. Hillary Clinton got that. Actually, he couldn’t get that.”
Comey told The Associated Press in an interview this week that he saw telling Trump privately — at a January 2017 Trump Tower meeting — that he wasn’t under investigation as a way to lower the “temperature” of an otherwise tense encounter before the president took office.
Giuliani’s explanation foreshadows a likely defense to the May 2017 dismissal, but it was just the latest in a series of rationales offered by Trump and his advisers.
It also comes as the president’s legal team is debating whether to allow Trump to be interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, which in addition to investigating potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, is examining whether the president’s firing of Comey and other actions constitute obstruction of justice.
“The president, frankly, doesn’t have to have a justification,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Thursday. “He can hire and fire whoever he wants and he made the decision to fire James Comey and that’s certainly a decision he stands by and one that he feels very justified in since.”
In announcing the firing, the White House initially cited the FBI director’s handling of the investigation into Clinton’s emails. Trump later told NBC’s Lester Holt that he was thinking of “this Russia thing” when he made the move.
On Fox News Wednesday night, Giuliani said Trump did the Lester Holt interview “to explain to the American people the president was not the target of the investigation.”
Comey has acknowledged that he told Trump on multiple occasions that he was not personally under investigation. Yet when asked that same question by Congress at a public hearing last year, he declined to provide that same reassurance.
“I’m not gonna answer that,” Comey said a at March 2017 House intelligence committee hearing in response to the question of whether Trump himself was being investigated. “We have briefed him in great detail on the subjects of the investigation and what we’re doing, but I’m not gonna answer about anybody in this forum.”
After that hearing, Comey has said, Trump called him at the FBI and declared the Russia investigation a “cloud” that needed to be lifted. During that conversation, Comey told Trump again that he was not personally under investigation and said he had already shared that fact with congressional leaders. But Trump was not satisfied, Comey has said, and repeatedly told him, “We need to get that fact out” more widely.
In the AP interview Tuesday, Comey acknowledged that it was possible he could have handled the January 2017 Trump Tower meeting differently.
His general counsel had expressed concern about providing that reassurance to Trump, but Comey said he thought it was probably necessary as a way to preserve their relationship. During that same meeting, Comey alerted Trump to the existence of salacious allegations concerning Russia prostitutes contained in a dossier compiled by a former British spy that had been circulating around Washington.
Comey said Trump strongly denied the allegations, but appeared to calm down after being told he wasn’t under investigation.
“If I was still going to be in the position of having to brief him privately, had I not said that, what would have happened thereafter?” Comey said in the interview. “That is, what would have happened to the temperature of that meeting if I didn’t have some way to take it down in the moment at Trump Tower?”
He added, “I can imagine some things that I would do differently but then I’d have to figure out, so what would I do then with the alternative lives that would spin out from that and would they be better or worse?”
Associated Press writer Chad Day contributed to this report.