Comey's firing: Strange and borderline ridiculous

US President Donald Trump is going to meet the Pope soon. How do you think that will go? Maybe when Mr Trump emerges, he'll announce that Pope Francis promised him canonisation. Then the Vatican will deny it. Then Mr Sean Spicer will hold a news conference in which he will explain that the President was simply working off a memo written by the Deputy Secretary of State.

Then a reporter will point out that the State Department doesn't have any deputy secretaries yet. Then we will hear another complaint about "gotcha journalism". Look, it wouldn't be any weirder than what we've been through the past week.

The President managed to fire Federal Bureau of Investigation chief James Comey in the most unseemly, strange and borderline ridiculous manner humanly possible. A third of Mr Trump's letter of dismissal was an expression of gratitude for "informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation". That sounded sort of fishy, since Mr Comey did not have a reputation for running around town assuring people they were not currently suspected of any crimes.

On the night the message was delivered, Mr Spicer starred in what we will call the White House Shrubbery Incident, briefing the press corps in the dark, near a cluster of bushes by the West Wing.

He was not hiding in the foliage! Stop passing around that story! Although he did make it clear he was prepared to bolt if anybody tried to get a picture. ("Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off.") During the conference in deep shadows, Mr Spicer informed the media that the decision to fire Mr Comey was based entirely on a memo by Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein: "It was all him… No one from the White House. That was a Department of Justice decision." We will now pause to identify Mr Rosenstein. He had been deputy attorney-general for two weeks. Before that he was US attorney in Maryland, a very well-regarded public servant. Let that be an important lesson, people. Whatever you do, do not take a job in the Trump administration. Before you've got your desk organised, you'll be involved in a national scandal. Or in a bush.

"At the very minimum he was being used - they were using his reputation to try and wipe up their mess," said Mr Chuck Schumer, the leader of the minority Democrats in the Senate, in a phone interview. Mr Rosenstein has agreed to meet the full Senate this week. Let's hope he says something very useful and interesting. Or he'll be known for the rest of his life as The Memo Guy.

US President Donald Trump (left) and then FBI director James Comey meeting at a White House reception in January. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Since nothing ever happens in this White House that is not instantly followed by a contradictory story, by the end of the week the President was claiming it was all his idea to fire Mr Comey. That version did seem way more believable than the idea that Mr Trump was reacting to something he had read. The memo was only three pages long, but still.

Then he went Watergate. "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" Mr Trump tweeted.

"You would think they'd have learnt a lesson," mused then President Richard Nixon's aide John Dean. "But Trump doesn't seem to have much of an institutional memory. If any." Hmm. In an NBC interview, in which Mr Trump was eager to make it clear that he had fired Mr Comey without considering any supporting documents, the President said his decision was all about "this Russia thing with Trump and Russia". We will now take a moment to recall which previous chief executive had the peculiar habit of referring to himself in the third person. Hint: He liked to, um, record stuff.

The whole world wanted to know if there was indeed some kind of taping system in the Oval Office. The White House had no comment on Mr Trump's comment. "The President has nothing further to add on that," said Mr Spicer. Three times, in fact. He also said "the tweet speaks for itself". As do they all.

What happens next? Should we be talking impeachment? (Remember the magic warning: Mike Pence.) And by the way, who would you rather have as press secretary, Mr Sean Spicer or his deputy Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Mr Spicer vanished for a while after that late-night news conference, but he was on Navy Reserve duty, not crouching under the hydrangeas. While he was gone, we had Ms Sanders, who previously starred as manager of her father Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign. She contradicted herself about a billion times, but with a lot of spunk.

Or neither? Mr Trump suggested that perhaps "the best thing to do would be to cancel all future 'press briefings' and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???" Do you think the written responses would have lots of unnecessary punctuation, and quotation marks in strange places like his tweets do? Or would they just be transcriptions of those "tapes"? And most importantly, do you think he'll be wired when he meets the Pope?


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 14, 2017, with the headline 'Comey's firing: Strange and borderline ridiculous'. Subscribe