Donald Trump and his senior staffers were headed across the Atlantic when news broke that the president had trash-talked former FBI Director James Comey in a meeting with Russian government officials—a meeting in which Trump reportedly promised the Kremlin more flexibility in their relationship with “crazy” Comey out of the picture.
“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, according to an official written account of the meeting first reported by The New York Times. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” Trump promised.
The White House confirmed that Trump made the remarks in a Friday afternoon statement, but insisted that the president was simply attempting to elicit concessions from the Russians. The administration officials and West Wing aides who were left grounded stateside on Friday late afternoon couldn’t do much more than dodge questions and vent inflamed frustrations at their boss. (Senior staffers who escaped aboard Air Force One included Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, Director of Strategic Communications Hope Hicks, press secretary Sean Spicer, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.)
“I’m glad I’m not on the plane so I could be here to answer your Russia questions,” a senior Trump administration official said, sarcastically, before abruptly hanging up.
Trump’s remarks quickly elicited groans, and some harsh words, from senior officials who did speak with The Daily Beast.
“If Donald Trump gets impeached, he will have one person to blame: Donald Trump,” one of those administration officials said.
The official noted a pattern among leaks that have dominated headlines this week: In virtually every case—the president’s request that Comey pledge fealty to him, a subsequent ask that Comey ease an investigation into his former top national security aide, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and revelations that he hopes to rehire Flynn when the FBI wraps up its probe—leaked Trump statements have revealed flippance or hostility toward a federal investigation into alleged Russian meddling in 2016’s presidential election.
The resulting clamor of calls for an independent probe into that meddling—the Justice Department appointed a special counsel to lead such a probe this week—and allegations of criminal obstruction and calls for impeachment were entirely avoidable, the official suggested.
“Trump himself hasn’t been implicated in any of these leaks except where he’s implicated himself, where he says something that makes his perhaps less-than-sterling intentions clear,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the controversy candidly. “He keeps saying there’s no collusion, and I think he’s right. So if he would just shut his trap, what would Dems have?
“Okay, he fired Comey,” the official conceded. “With a semi-competent comms operation, that would blow over in 24 hours. And that’s the worst part: he has a competent comms staff. But they can’t do their jobs because he keeps running his mouth.”
Those complaints echo weeks of griping from administration and White House officials who say that Trump, through unscripted tweets and statements to the press, has undermined a White House communications operation that is trying to dig him out of a very deep public relations hole—not to mention the legal bind the president may find himself in.
Trump’s repeated media missteps have frustrated even longtime supporters. “Every day he looks more and more like a complete moron,” said one senior administration official who also worked on Trump’s campaign. “I can’t see Trump resigning or even being impeached, but at this point I wish he’d grow a brain and be the man that he sold himself as on the campaign.”
Asked whether an administration staff change-up would ameliorate this latest crisis, a Republican source formerly involved with a pro-Trump political group told The Daily Beast, “yes, if it comes with a frontal lobotomy for Trump.”
The consequences for Trump could be more dire than a staff shake-up, law enforcement sources suggested, however. Trump’s reported comments to the Russian officials could support allegations that he fired Comey in order to slow or put a stop to an investigation probing his campaign’s contacts with the Russian government—allegations that the White House vehemently denies.
“Absolutely… Looks Like Obstruction”
Asked whether those comments could be construed as intent to interfere in the FBI’s investigation, a Justice Department official told The Daily Beast, “absolutely.”
“Individual acts/comments may not constitute obstruction [of justice], but the whole pattern—starting with the requested loyalty oath, ending with the firing—does look like obstruction,” the official said in an email. “And then the question is, is he obstructing because he knows he is guilty himself, or is he obstructing because he doesn’t know the full extent of [former Trump campaign chief Paul] Manafort, Flynn, and others’ shenanigans, and is terrified of finding out. Both are plausible; we know where I would place my bet.”
David C. Gomez, a former FBI assistant special agent in charge, said Trump’s comments demonstrated a profound inability to grasp the potential consequences of his words.
“In terms of potential criminal activity, it’s amateur night at the White House,” Gomez told The Daily Beast. “These guys—and Trump especially—don’t know how to not implicate themselves.
“On a big case like this, the ideal thing would be a wiretap on your number one subject,” Gomez added. “But in this case, you don’t need a wiretap. He just comes right out and says it.”
—with additional reporting by Gideon Resnick