Sunday 18 March 2018

Donald Trump 'considers firing top White House staff, including Sean Spicer' amid Comey fallout

US President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump

Ruth Sherlock

Donald Trump is considering a major purge of his top White House staff as he searches for a "huge reboot" following the most damaging week of his presidential term, political sources in Washington said on Sunday night.

Taken aback by the fallout from his sudden dismissal of James Comey, the FBI director, and on the hunt for someone to blame, the president was said to be toying with firing senior allies, from Reince Priebus, his chief of staff, to Sean Spicer, his combative press secretary.

“He's frustrated, and angry at everyone,” one confidant told Mike Allen, the leading political journalist, adding that the president was thinking about "going big" with his response. "The question now is how big and how bold."

The Trump administration is facing questions over why the president decided to remove Mr Comey, the top official leading the inquiry into allegations of collusion between his campaign and Russia during the election.

Democrats kept up the pressure on Sunday, with leading politicians warning that they may refuse to vote on the nomination of a new FBI director, who would have to be confirmed by the Senate, until a special prosecutor was appointed.

"To have that special prosecutor, people would breathe a sigh of relief, because then there would be a real independent person overlooking the FBI director," Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader told CNN.

And there were mounting calls, including from Republicans, for Mr Trump to turn over any tapes of his conversations with Mr Comey, after the president suggested he may have a secretly recorded them.

Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee called Mr Trump's suggestion "outrageous" and said it was reminiscent of the Watergate scandal that ultimately forced former president Richard Nixon to resign.

Lindsay Graham, one of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate, who has previously defended Mr Trump, said this was not a matter to be "cute" with.

"If there's tapes of this conversation, they need to be turned over," he said. Adding that Mr Trump's tweet alleging the recordings "inappropriate".

The turmoil is said to be no less bitter inside the White House. Informed sources said Mr Trump has been stewing all week, personally interrogating aides as he investigates how each and every negative headline in the media came to light.

He is said to be particularly angry at his communications office and has spoken candidly with advisers about a broad shake-up that could include demotions or dismissals.

The president is increasingly of the opinion that he needs a more ferocious defender than Mr Spicer has been, some sources said.

In a sign of the strains, Mr Trump reportedly did not inform Mr Spicer, or Mike Dubke his communications director, of his decision to fire Mr Comey until about an hour before it was announced.

In the immediate aftermath of Mr Comey’s sacking, White House aides scrambled to come up with a rationale for the sacking, which was later apparently contradicted by Mr Trump.

Frantic at the Watergate comparisons in the media coverage, Mr Trump sought to handle the crisis himself, giving interviews and sending out a flurry of tweets that undercut his staff's accounts of events.

White House insiders have described morale in the West Wing as low, with aides who are not required to engage with the president keeping their office doors closed.

Many are said to feel let down by the president's behaviour; frustrated at his willingness to put out statements that suddenly undercut pre-agreed media narratives and leave them looking like "liars and fools" one source said.

“There is nothing more discouraging or embarrassing for a spokesman than to have your boss contradict you. In political communications, you’re only as good as your credibility," Alex Conant, a Republican strategist said in an interview with the New York Times.

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and an ally of Mr Trump's said the president "resembles a quarterback who doesn’t call a huddle and gets ahead of his offensive line so nobody can block him and defend him because nobody knows what the play is".

“But it minimizes the ability of the presidency to both protect him from mistakes and to maximize his strengths,” said Mr Gingrich, who is working on a biography of Mr Trump.

“At some point, I hope he’s going to learn that taking one extra day, having the entire team lined up. I don’t think he always helps himself. I think 10 percent less Trump would be a hundred percent more effective.”

White House contradictions on the firing of James Comey

James Comey firing | White House contradictions

The White House has struggled to maintain a clear explanation of the chain of events leading to the firing of FBI director James Comey. In some cases, spokespeople have contradicted themselves from day to day, in others their statements conflicted with the President’s own account.

Whose idea was the memo?

Tuesday: “It was all him. No one from the White House. That was a DOJ decision,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said, laying the impetus for the memo that built the case for firing onto Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Wednesday: “He did have a conversation with the deputy attorney general on Monday where they had come to him to express their concerns. The president asked that they put those concerns and their recommendation in writing, which is the letter that you guys have received,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, describing the president’s instructions to Mr Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

What role did it play in Trump’s decision?

Wednesday: ““People in the Justice Department made a very strong recommendation, the president followed it and he made a quick and decisive action to fire James Comey. He took the recommendation seriously. And he made a decision based on that,” Ms Sanders said in an interview with MSNBC.

Thursday: “Oh, I was going fire regardless of recommendation … he made a recommendation, he’s highly respected, very good guy, very smart guy, the Democrats like him, the Republicans like him, he made a recommendation but regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey,” President Donald Trump said in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt.

When did Trump decide?

Wednesday: “No,” Ms Sanders said, when asked if the president had already decided to fire Mr Comey on Monday when he asked Mr Rosenstein for the memo.

Thursday: “He had already made that decision. He’d been thinking about it for months, which I did say yesterday and have said many times since. … the recommendation I guess he got from the deputy attorney general just further solidified his decision and, again, I think, reaffirmed that he made the right one,” Ms Sanders said in the White House briefing.

Was this about the FBI’s Russia investigation?

Tuesday: “This has nothing to do with Russia,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told CNN.

Thursday: “We want this to come to its conclusion, we want it to come to its conclusion with integrity,” Ms Sanders said of the Russia probe. “And we think that we’ve actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.”

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