On Friday, President Donald Trump met with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, her talking points and briefing materials in hand, in the Oval Office ahead of one of her routine televised press briefings.
During the meeting, the president, according to two people familiar with Friday’s briefing prep, encouraged his spokeswoman to get tough on fired FBI Director James Comey—as a leaker, a fraud, and just another Trump-bashing self-promoter—when she went on TV later that day.
“The president wanted her to rip him apart,” one West Wing official with knowledge of the meeting told The Daily Beast.
Sanders did not disappoint her boss.
“The American people see right through the blatant lies of a self-admitted leaker,” she said in the briefing room on Friday afternoon, dragging Comey’s new book and tour as a “poorly executed PR stunt” designed to make the former FBI chief money and boost his reputation.
The book paints an unflattering portrait of Trump as a pathological liar and as someone with Mafia don-like tendencies. The book also dives into Trump’s reported conversation with Comey regarding the alleged “pee tape,” and, as The Daily Beast first reported, includes an anecdote in which Chief of Staff John Kelly called the president “dishonorable” for sacking Comey. The ousted FBI director is on a media and book tour to promote his soon-to-be published work.
Sanders also assured reporters and viewers Friday that “one of the president’s greatest achievements” was firing Comey last year, and knocked him as a “disgraced partisan hack.”
Later that day, Trump announced in televised remarks that he was targeting another one of his declared enemies—Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—in a new round of airstrikes on Syria. Although the final decision on military action ended up being front and center for the administration that evening, Comey—as well as the feds’ raid on Trump’s personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen—continued to weigh heavily on the president’s mind as key fixtures in the ongoing drama and vendetta plaguing Trump world.
The two subjects popped up in his typically frenzied Twitter account more than tweets about his latest Syria intervention did, showing a president indulging his insatiable penchant for personal grievance and attempts at score-settling. And as Trump headed further into his weekend in Washington, D.C., Comey’s continued ability to get under the president’s skin only became more and more apparent. At times, he seemed triggered in large part by his dedicated viewership of Fox & Friends, one of his favorite and most influential TV shows. At times, he called for “jail” time.
“The big questions in Comey’s badly reviewed book aren’t answered like, how come he gave up Classified Information (jail), why did he lie to Congress (jail), why did the DNC refuse to give Server to the FBI (why didn’t they TAKE it), why the phony memos, McCabe’s $700,000 & more?” Trump tweeted Sunday morning, in just one of several parts of his tirade.
“Slippery James Comey, a man who always ends up badly and out of whack (he is not smart!), will go down as the WORST FBI Director in history, by far!” the president subsequently tweeted, testing out a new nickname.
On Sunday evening, ABC News aired its 20/20 interview with Comey, which Trump’s advisers and friends who spoke to The Daily Beast in advance of the airing all expected the president to hate-watch, as they all knew he would for a 60 Minutes interview with Stormy Daniels, another Sunday night affair.
“I’m not trying to… by the way, suggest that President Trump is out breaking legs and, you know, shaking down shopkeepers,” Comey says, in the ABC transcript, comparing Trump to a mobster. “But instead, what I’m talking about is that leadership culture constantly comes back to me when I think about my experience with the Trump administration. The loyalty oaths, the boss as the dominant center of everything, it’s all about how do you serve the boss, what’s in the boss’ interests. It’s the family, the family, the family, the family.”
Later in the interview with George Stephanopoulos, the former FBI director answered the question, “was President Trump obstructing justice?” with, “Possibly. I mean, it’s certainly some evidence of obstruction of justice. It would depend… and I’m just a witness in this case, not the investigator or prosecutor, it would depend upon other things that reflected on his intent.”
In the sit-down with Stephanopoulos, Comey was clear that he believes Trump is woefully unqualified for his current job.
“I don’t buy this stuff about him being mentally incompetent or early stages of dementia,” Comey said. “He strikes me as a person of above-average intelligence who’s tracking conversations and knows what’s going on. I don’t think he’s medically unfit to be president. I think he’s morally unfit to be president. A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it, that person’s not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds. And that’s not a policy statement. Again, I don’t care what your views are on guns or immigration or taxes.”
The Trump White House and Republican National Committee (the latter of which took the initial lead on organizing the anti-Comey pushback campaign) are now both geared up for sustained warfare on Comey, and whatever else he says or does in his memoir and media blitz.
“What’s dishonorable is that James Comey lied about leaking information to the media, consistently contradicted himself in testimony, and made a series of bizarre decisions as FBI director,” RNC spokesman Michael Ahrens told The Daily Beast last week. “That’s why Republicans and Democrats alike have said he has no credibility.”
Comey’s allies, for their part, like their odds in the coming fight.
“There is a campaign of defamation going on, [and] it is being orchestrated by the president, it is being carried out by one of the two national political parties in its formal capacity as a party committee,” Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution scholar and friend of Comey’s, told The Daily Beast on Sunday night ahead of the ABC News interview. “I know of nothing like this… but I think this is genuinely different and extraordinary. And the only thing I can say is it is not a flattering use of the presidency… It doesn’t change [what is] alleged in the book. Yelling about Jim all day isn’t going to change that.”
Wittes added, “I trust the public to judge between the characters and credibility of these two men. And I trust [special counsel] Bob Mueller and the judicial process, as well.”