President Donald Trump broke his silence Friday on former FBI Director James Comey’s blockbuster testimony before Congress a day earlier, claiming “total and complete vindication” while appearing to accuse Comey of lying and labeling him a “leaker.”
“Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication…and WOW, Comey is a leaker!” Trump wrote on Twitter just after 6 a.m. on Friday.
The accusation — essentially alleging that Comey committed perjury in his congressional testimony — is just the latest broadside Trump has launched against his former FBI director, but it is not expected to be the last.
The tweet also raised eyebrows in the West Wing, with at least two senior White House aides expressing surprise Friday morning at the president’s missive slamming Comey.
However, the tweet is just one part of the counter-Comey offensive. A person close to Trump’s outside legal team confirmed on Friday that they will aim to file a complaint next week with the Department of Justice Inspector General about the so-called “leak,” in which Comey handed off memos describing his conversations with Trump to a friend who in turn passed them onto the New York Times.
Trump’s lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, was immediately criticized for the move, which followed a bellicose statement on Thursday in which Kasowitz, too, accused Comey of lying under oath and inappropriately disclosing the contents of his conversations with Trump.
“This is an abuse of process & we will be filing a defense of Comey. @marckasowitz beware: there r serious consequences for abuse of process,” former Obama ethics czar Norm Eisen wrote on Twitter Friday.
Trump, however, has a long history of threatening legal action but failing to follow through.
Trump on Thursday managed to stay quiet on Twitter throughout Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, in which the former director himself accused the president of lyingand told lawmakers that it was “the nature of the person” he was dealing with that compelled him to take copious, contemporaneous notes to protect against the possibility that Trump might later “lie about the nature of our meeting.”
And while Comey did verify Trump’s past statement that he assured the president he was not personally under investigation, Comey far from provided “complete vindication” for Trump.
Comey, while declining to directly say whether he thought Trump tried to obstruct justice, nevertheless testified that he believed Trump directed him to shut down a probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn and fired him with the intent of changing the course of the larger Russia investigation.
Trump’s team has been quick to push back, and a main thrust of their strategy is to discredit Comey, painting him as disgruntled and untrustworthy. The process began with an RNC-coordinated counter-messaging effort, and was followed by Kasowitz’s prepared statement at the National Press Club, near the White House.
The president upped the ante on Friday morning with his tweet.
But the defense of Trump has been inconsistent. While Trump and Kasowitz have directly refuted the substance of Comey’s accounts, many of Trump’s fellow Republicans sought to frame it as a misinterpretation by Comey rather than a total fabrication.
“The president’s new at this. He’s new at government,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Thursday. “He’s not steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI and White Houses.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a staunch Trump ally, defended Trump by saying the Flynn discussion was “normal New York City conversation.”
Trump’s allies are also eager to shift the conversation to Comey’s conduct. While White House officials were largely absent from the morning TV news circuit, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski made the president’s case in three separate appearances on ABC, NBC and Fox News. Lewandowski worked to thread a difficult needle, emphasizing Comey’s statement that Trump had never been under investigation while at the same time calling into question the FBI director’s credibility to dispute other portions of his testimony.
Lewandowski criticized Comey for relaying his notes from meetings with the president to the media through an intermediary, suggesting that the former director should be prosecuted if such a move was part of a regular pattern of behavior. Lewandowski also mocked Comey, telling NBC’s “Today” show that the former director had used a go-between to share his memos “because he wasn’t man enough to give the notes directly to the media when he wanted them out to the media.”
And while Trump has suggested that he might be in possession of recordings of his meetings with Comey – recordings that the former director said Thursday he would like the president to release if they exist – Lewandowski said he did not know if such tapes exist because he does not work in the White House. Regardless, he said on NBC, “I think Jim Comey’s credibility is at about zero right now.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” said the president’s behavior with Comey was “certainly inappropriate” and “an abuse of power” but she stopped short of discussing impeachment, something she said she has urged her Democratic colleagues to wield carefully and only if they have the facts behind them.
“In terms of obstruction of justice, I think there’s reason to believe and Mueller should look into this,” she said. “It’s certainly, in the court of public opinion, very incriminating.”
Trump is also expected to address the controversy further when he holds a joint news conference with the president of Romania on Friday afternoon in the Rose Garden.
Tara Palmeri and Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.