Following the abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey, Democrats suddenly find their own words about his handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation coming out of the mouths of the Trump administration — in some cases literally.
"Goofy. Implausible. Surreal,” Sen. Brian Schatz told BuzzFeed News when asked if he was surprised that Clinton’s emails were coming up in this context.
But far from “celebrating” that President Donald Trump is echoing their anger at Comey, as the White House suggested Wednesday they should be, Democrats aren’t buying it.
“It just doesn’t hold water to me that they are defending Hillary Clinton’s honor. If that was the case, they could have fired James Comey right after the election or they could have waited for the inspector general’s report to come back,” Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy said Wednesday, adding that he has a hard time believing that the Trump administration, “having led the cheers of lock her up, is now coming to Hillary Clinton’s defense.”
“It defies logic,” Murphy said.
In the day since Comey was shown the door, the White House has repeatedly pointed to public statements by Democrats criticizing Comey for his handling of the Clinton investigation. That point was also central to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo recommending that Comey be fired. Rosenstein wrote that he could not ”defend the Director’s” actions in the case, adding that Comey was “wrong” to make public “his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution.”
White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday that it was "startling that Democrats aren’t celebrating [Comey’s firing] since they've been calling for it for so long."
But Democrats are incredulous, with many — including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — arguing that despite their criticisms, they never called on Trump to fire Comey.
“The pretense of firing Jim Comey because of the Clinton emails is totally preposterous,” said Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
Several Democrats pointed specifically to Trump’s brief letter Tuesday, in which he thanked Comey for “informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation,” but that nonetheless he would accept the DOJ’s recommendation to fire him.
Democrats said they believe that line, and the timing of the letter, indicate that the dismissal was really about the FBI’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia during the 2016 election.
“If you look at the Rosenstein letter, [it] doesn’t say anything about the Russia investigation, but what Trump is interested in is the Russia investigation,” Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, said Wednesday morning. “The most telling thing about it, that phrase in the letter was like when a bad poker player shows you by his facial expression that he doesn’t like the hand that he’s holding, and that’s what that letter meant, and that’s why there was this firing. It was an effort to thwart this investigation, but we’re not going to let the president stop us.”
Comey first confirmed the existence of the investigation at a House Intelligence committee hearing in March.
Schumer also questioned the timing of Comey’s firing in a press conference Tuesday night. “We know the FBI has been looking into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, a very serious offense. Were these investigations getting too close to home for the president?” Schumer told reporters.
Some Democratic senators said the Clinton line was all about changing the subject from Russia to one where Republicans feel they are on safe ground.
“The only thing that worries me a bit is that I think they've learned from the leader of their party the advantage of changing the topic, even if it's temporarily tactically bad for them,” Schatz said. “I think they figure as long as they're talking about Hillary and emails they're on terra firma, but this is not credible.”
"I expect that Republicans are going to bring up Hillary's emails every chance they get,” Sen. Sherrod Brown told BuzzFeed News. "He wants to continues to talk about last year instead of the damage he's doing this year to the country, so I'm not surprised at all."
It's true that there's little love lost between Comey and Democrats. Many believe the ousted FBI director may have cost them the White House — an idea that Comey said in a Senate hearing last week makes him “mildly nauseous”.
But without him, Democrats are concerned about where the FBI’s investigation goes from here. And they’re even more worried about who Trump might nominate to replace him.
“No one is going to nominate James Comey for the perfect FBI director in terms of how he’s handled everything. But that’s not the issue here. The issue here is when you’re the subject of an investigation, or when you have recused yourself as attorney general of the United States over an investigation, firing the law enforcement official responsible for that investigation is a very, very big deal,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill.