President Trump and first lady Melania Trump board Marine One to fly to Joint Base Andrews from the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Friday, May 19, 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
This article has been updated.
Two weeks ago Thursday, President Trump delayed his trip back home to New York — or, really, back to his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. — because he wanted to have a few dozen friends over from Capitol Hill for a celebration in the Rose Garden. House Republicans, after an embarrassing failure in March, had cobbled together enough votes to pass the American Health Care Act, the GOP’s planned overhaul of Obamacare. It was a celebratory moment, the high-water mark to-date of Trump’s policy agenda.
The two weeks since? A nearly unrelenting disaster of bad decisions and bad news.
Saturday, May 6. Trump plays a round of golf at Bedminster.
Sunday, May 7. Trump travels back to Washington.
Monday, May 8. Former acting attorney general Sally Yates joins former director of national intelligence James Clapper in testifying before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee. She reveals that she told White House counsel Don McGahn on Jan. 26 and 27 that she believed that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn could be compromised by the Russian government and that his private statements contradicted what Vice President Pence had said publicly. Regardless, the White House didn’t fire Flynn until two weeks into February.
Tuesday, May 9. Shortly after 5 p.m., Trump fires FBI director James Comey.
The White House appears not to have prepared for the immediate backlash that ensued, scrambling to answer questions in an impromptu news conference held by press secretary Sean Spicer among some bushes, in the dark. Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill were unaware of the decision, as were many officials in the White House itself.
When the administration announced the firing, it included a memo from deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein detailing concerns about Comey’s handling of the Clinton email server investigation and a note from Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommending Comey’s termination. It also included a letter from Trump to Comey, explicitly mentioning that Comey had told him three times that he wasn’t under investigation. That letter was dropped off at the FBI by Trump’s longtime personal bodyguard, although Comey himself was in California.
Spicer argues that the firing was spurred by Rosenstein’s memo, which was “all him” in its creation — something Rosenstein did on his own initiative.
Wednesday, May 10. Inexplicably, as D.C. is roiling from Trump’s firing of Comey, Trump meets with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office. Ambassador Sergey Kislyak is there, too, which we learn only because the Russians brought a photographer with them who filed photos to the Russian news agency TASS. The rundown of the meeting that the White House released to the press didn’t mention Kislyak.
Later in the day, The Post reports that Rosenstein threatened to resign after seeing how his memo was used against Comey. This memo, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says, left Trump “no choice” but to fire Comey. But she also contradicts Spicer, saying that the memo followed a meeting between Trump, Session and Rosenstein on Monday.
The White House releases a timeline that indicates that Trump wanted to remove Comey after his congressional testimony the prior week — not because of the memo.
A Quinnipiac University poll released on May 10 shows truly terrible approval numbers for Trump.
Thursday, May 11. In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump undercuts everything that had been said previously, arguing that he was going to fire Comey regardless of the memo — and that when he decided to do so, “I said to myself, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.”
In short order, questions are raised about whether or not this constitutes an obstruction of justice: Firing the man investigating you seems, in the abstract, to fit the bill.
On Thursday night, another Times scoop: According to two people who heard Comey’s account of a dinner that he had with Trump the day after Yates warned the White House about Flynn, Trump asked Comey whether or not he would pledge his loyalty to the president. Comey demurred, promising only his “honesty.”
All of this buried the other embarrassing story of the day: Trump’s claim to The Economist that he invented the phrase “priming the pump” in an economic context.
Friday, May 12. Trump appears to threaten Comey on Twitter.
James Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
Spicer declines to say whether or not Trump is recording Oval Office conversations. (There’s reason to think that he does.)
Saturday, May 13. The weekend! Trump gives the commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.
Sunday, May 14. Trump plays a round of golf at his club in Sterling, Va.
Then: Hell Week.
Monday, May 15. The Post reports that Trump’s conversation with Russians Lavrov and Kislyak in the Oval Office included revealing highly classified information — information so classified that the White House subsequently asked news organizations to constrain how they discussed it when reporting on Trump’s leak.
Administration officials offered a series of carefully worded denials that offered the sense that the White House strongly disputed the claim.
Earlier in the morning, Politico outlined how White House chief of staff Reince Priebus was trying to keep administration officials from presenting Trump with fake news and bad information aimed at persuading him on policy issues.
Tuesday, May 16. On Tuesday morning, though, Trump seemed to again undercut all of that rhetoric, tweeting that he had the “absolute right” to share information with the Russians — which is true, even as pertains to classified information. It just doesn’t make it a good idea. Multiple sources report that the information came from Israel and wasn’t Trump’s to share.
Trump meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Oval Office. Afterward, Erdogan heads to the Turkish ambassador’s house in northwest D.C., where his bodyguards appear to initiate a brawl with protesters. The White House offers no comment.
The big news came in the evening. The Times broke the story that Comey had recorded contemporaneous memos detailing his conversations with Trump, including one in which Trump appeared to ask for the FBI to drop its investigation into Flynn.
Wednesday, May 17. It gets worse.
The most significant story on Wednesday was the announcement that Rosenstein had tapped former FBI director Robert Mueller to serve as special counsel investigating the Russian meddling and any links to the president’s campaign. Trump himself found out about the appointment only a short while before the news became public. Mueller’s investigation will be largely independent of the Justice Department and includes the ability to bring charges.
The Post reported on a leaked recording from a June 2016 meeting, in which Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy made a comment about how he believed Trump was being paid by Putin.
The New York Times reported that Flynn himself had informed McGahn before Trump was inaugurated that he was under investigation by the Justice Department for lobbying on behalf of Turkish interests.
That lobbying cropped up in a report from McClatchy, detailing how Flynn was asked to give the Trump team’s approval for a military action involving Kurdish forces against the Islamic State. He declined to agree to the effort — which aligns with what the Turkish government, which opposes U.S.-Kurdish coordination, would have wanted.
Thursday, May 18. Reuters reports that the Trump campaign team had at least 18 contacts with Russian interests that hadn’t been disclosed.
A friend of Comey’s explains to the Times the extent to which the former FBI director was concerned about Trump crossing the line of propriety in pressuring the FBI over the Russia investigation.
Rosenstein appears before the Senate in a closed session. According to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), he tells senators that he knew Comey would be fired before he wrote his memo.
This, amazingly, constituted the best day of the week for the White House.
Friday, May 19. Trump leaves on his first foreign trip as president. Shortly after Air Force One departs for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, several news stories break.
The Times reports that an official transcript of the meeting between Trump and Lavrov includes Trump calling Comey a “nut job” and, more significantly, that he “faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” thanks to the Comey firing. (The White House didn’t deny that report; one official claimed that Trump was simply trying to establish a better bargaining position.)
The Post followed up with a scoop of our own: The federal investigation into Russia included a focus on a senior White House official. In other words, someone working closely with Trump at the moment is currently under scrutiny.
Over at McClatchy, there was news that Rosenstein informed members of Congress that the investigation into Russian meddling now included an assessment of whether or not there had been a coverup.
At this point, it’s hard to see how things could progress in a way that’s less favorable for the Trump administration. Of course, it’s seemed that way for most of the past two weeks.