Lester Holt: 1, President Trump: 0 in Businesslike Grilling on Russia & Comey
The president said he repeatedly, if improperly, sought the director’s reassurance that he isn’t the target of the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election.
Lester Holt conquered the news on Thursday, and the media-political complex bowed down and acknowledged his sovereignty.
The NBC Nightly News anchor’s calm and businesslike grilling of President Donald Trump about his sudden and savage sacking of FBI Director James Comey, among other inconvenient subjects that are plaguing Trump’s 113-day-old presidency, led not only Holt’s broadcast, but also the evening newscasts on CBS and ABC, as well as coverage throughout the day on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
The biggest headline from the White House tête-à-tête—blazoned in an exclusive video clip that was judiciously released by NBC in a special report that preempted an afternoon soap opera (as opposed to the ongoing Trump soap opera)—was the president’s claim to have decided on his own to fire Comey after hosting him at a White House dinner (in which Comey, according to Trump, asked to keep his job).
The president said that he repeatedly, if improperly, sought the director’s reassurance that he isn’t the target of the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in last year’s election and the Kremlin’s possible collusion with Trump campaign operatives.
Those revelations provoked bipartisan expressions of outrage and amply demonstrated what many in Washington and beyond have suspected: that Trump’s hapless communications team—notably Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway, to say nothing of Vice President Mike Pence—have either been incompetently out of the loop or lying their asses off when they’ve insisted for the past three days that Comey was fired only because of a face to face meeting followed by a meticulous review and thoughtful recommendation from the freshly minted deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, and his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“What I did is, I was going to fire Comey—my decision, it was not,” Trump told Holt, who interrupted, “You had made the decision before they came in the room?”
“I was going to fire Comey. I—there’s no good time to do it by the way—“ Trump continued, in his typically fractured speaking style, frequently uttering sentences that contain neither subject nor predicate.
“Because in your letter you said ‘I accepted their recommendation,’ so you had already made the decision,” Holt pointed out.
“Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation,” Trump admitted.
Not satisfied with canning Comey Tuesday night in what an unsmiling Holt told the president was “fir[ing] him in a humiliating way while he’s sitting in a room with his colleagues and it’s appearing on the TV,” Trump pummeled the ex-director with childish insults.
“Look, he’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander, the FBI has been in turmoil,” the president insisted. “You know that, I know that. Everybody knows that,” he added, in one of his favorite unsubstantiated locutions. “You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago, it hasn’t recovered from that.”
The interview excerpt, which aired for nearly 15 minutes without a commercial break, started with Trump, his suit-jacket open to accommodate his gut and show off his lengthy necktie, marching grimly into the room to greet the svelte, impeccably tailored Holt, and handing him an unidentified sheet of paper, which the anchor eyeballed dubiously and then placed at the bottom of a stack of his own research materials.
The anchor directed the president to a straight-back chair opposite his own. While Holt leaned back and crossed his legs in an attitude of alpha male sangfroid throughout their 31-minute encounter (the remainder of which is scheduled to be shown on Friday’s Today show), Trump sat edgily forward on his chair, legs spread wide—looking for all the world like some giant, yellow-haired badger bracing for an attack.
In a way, Trump was right to do so, as Holt relentlessly pressed him for a reason for sacking Comey that made even a little bit of sense, wondering repeatedly if the president was angry at the FBI director, as multiple news outlets have reported, because his agency was pursuing what he’d called the “hoax” of the Russia investigation.
“Well, all I can tell you is, well I know what, I know that I’m not under investigation,” Trump blurted at one point, verbally floundering in ways that might have made him thank his lucky stars that Holt hadn’t brought a polygraph. “Me. Personally. I’m not talking about campaigns. I’m not talking about anything else. I’m not under investigation.”
“Did you ask him to drop the investigation?” Holt pressed.
“Did anyone from the White House?” “No, in fact I want the investigation speeded up.”
“Did anyone from the White House ask him to, to end the investigation?
“No. No. Why would we do that?”
“Any surrogates on behalf of the White House?”
Trump weaseled: “Not that I know of. Look I want to find out if there was a problem with an election having to do with Russia. Or by the way, anybody else. Any other country. And I want that to be so strong and so good. And I want it to happen. I also want to have a really competent, capable director.”
Not finished with sliming Comey, whom President Obama appointed in 2013 to a now-truncated ten-year term, Trump added: “He’s not. He’s a showboat. He’s not my man or not my man. I didn’t appoint him. He was appointed long before me. But I want somebody who’s going to do a great job. And I will tell you we’re looking at candidates right now who could be spectacular. And that’s what I want for the FBI.”
In contrast to his denigration of the former FBI director, Trump went out of his way to ladle praise on his ex-national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, whom he reluctantly dismissed 18 days after his counsel learned from acting attorney general Sally Yates that Flynn was dangerously compromised and subject to Russian blackmail (because he lied to Pence, presumably among other officials, about his pre-White House conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak).
“Because my White House Counsel, Don McGahn, came back to me and did not sound like an emergency of many it didn’t make it sound like he was, you know, and she actually didn’t make it sound that way either…like it had to be done immediately,” Trump claimed. “This man has served for many years, he’s a general, he’s a, in my opinion, a very good person. I believe that it would be very unfair to hear from somebody who we don’t even know and immediately run out and fire a general.”
“She was the acting attorney general at the time,” Holt said, and then referred to Flynn’s acceptance of thousands of dollars in appearance fees and payments from the Kremlin-financed propaganda arm, RT, and, without registering as a foreign agent as the law requires, from the Turkish government. “Did you know that he had received payments from the Russian government, that he had received payments from the Turkish government?
“No,” Trump insisted, before reverting to one of his favorite deflections, “but Obama perhaps knew because he had clearance from the Obama administration.”
Trump also defended his meeting Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the notorious Kislyak, jolly photos of which were released by the Russian state news agency Tass after U.S. journalists were barred by the White House communications shop.
“Did you worry at all when you made the decision to fire Comey when you did, the day before Lavrov was here in the White House and, and the Russian ambassador, did you think through the optics of the way this would look?” Holt asked the president.
“I never thought about it,” Trump asserted. “It was set up uh a while ago and frankly, I could have waited but what difference does it make? I’m not looking for cosmetics. I’m looking to do a great job for the country…. So I’m very—I’m OK with those discussions, Lester. I think it’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”
Near the end of Holt’s broadcast, the anchor wondered what was going on in Trump’s mind, during a celebratory Rose Garden photo op with hundreds of Republican House members, when Trump openly expressed amazement and disbelief that he was, in fact, the president.
“Anybody that becomes president of the United States has to, every once in a while, say that’s really amazing,” Trump explained.
Amazing, of course, is the least one could say.