Even by the often bewildering standards of the Trump administration, the 24 hours following the firing of FBI Director James Comey were baffling, surreal and at times impossible to process.
In the confusing hours when up seemed down and down seemed up, the White House appeared to be defending Hillary Clinton, the FBI chief was among the last to know he was gone, and there was a cameo performance by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his ice skates.
It all started with a bolt from nowhere late Tuesday afternoon. President Donald Trump canned Comey. No one had thought it would come to this, since the FBI director was overseeing an investigation into Russian election meddling and alleged collusion by Trump campaign aides with Moscow. But the President, either dismissive or oblivious to the political damage he could suffer, did it anyway.
But it was the reason that Trump pulled the trapdoor under Comey that made it so difficult to believe. The White House cited a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein upbraiding Comey over his handling of the Clinton email saga.
So Trump went from touring the country calling for the former secretary of state to be thrown in jail to using Comey’s treatment of her as a reason to oust him. No wonder Democrats said it didn’t pass the smell test.
The looming dismissal of Comey was held close to the vest in the White House — a factor that later complicated efforts to explain it to the press.
And Comey himself was among the last to know. He was talking to FBI recruits when he learned the cruel plot twist that had claimed his job — in where else but Hollywood, California — when someone glanced at the TV tuned to cable news that was at that moment breaking the news of his firing. Comey thought it was a joke sources said, but he called his office to find out the truth.
Back in Washington, things got stranger still. Amazingly for someone who made his name on reality television telling people “You’re fired!” to their faces, the President is a bit squeamish about swinging the ax in person. So he sent a top aide to deliver Comey’s pink slip, presented in a manila folder to the FBI headquarters a few blocks from the White House.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook captured the Washington mood, tweeting: “Twilight zone.”
CNN analyst Jeffrey Toobin was incredulous. “This is not normal,” he said.
A little later on, Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey laid claim to the “first person to use the Nixon metaphor” award.
Ironically enough, just about the only people whose hair wasn’t on fire were in the press office of the White House. There was a news volcano erupting in Washington, but press aide Lindsey Waters said there will be no further comment Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, in Yorba Linda, California, resentment was brewing. Then, in a epic tweet, the Nixon Library staff sprang to their namesake’s defense: “FUN FACT: President Nixon never fired the Director of the FBI #FBIDirector #notNixonian.”
While the 37th president’s honor was being restored, it was dawning on the White House — several hours later than for everyone else in Washington — that there was a problem. One source amazingly told CNN’s Dana Bash that the press shop didn’t believe that firing Comey would cause such a backlash. After all, Democrats were as mad at him as Republicans, weren’t they?
Up on Capitol Hill, lawmakers were forced to make quick calculations about how to respond to Trump’s stunning gambit before they were mobbed by prowling reporters.
Washington was so shook up that even pals like Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain weren’t on the same page. Graham backed the firing; McCain was troubled by what transpired.
It was all hands to the pumps on the North lawn of the White House. Trump aides fanned out to spin the press. Kellyanne Conway made it on air on CNN with Anderson Cooper, who registered disbelief when she managed to squeeze in a plug for her boss’s election triumph in Michigan. “Late Late Show” host James Corden later tweeted at the disbelieving newsman: “Best. EyeRoll. Ever.”
Then, it was time for Comey to come home.
But to do so, the towering and now former, law enforcement supremo had to get to the airport. The sight of his SUV making its way down a California highway with a chasing helicopter beaming live pictures to cable TV added another layer of headscratching scenery.
Back in Washington, Trump’s brain trust was trying to play catch up. In the most bizarre of circumstances, White House spokesman Sean Spicer conducted one the most unorthodox gaggles of his career, in the dark at night, dwarfed by a large shrub at the side of the White House North lawn.
For a while, there was time to sleep.
But at 6:27 am ET, there came a Twitter wake-up call. “When things calm down, they will be thanking me!” Trump wrote on his favorite social media platform.
But things weren’t calming down. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in town for the best show on Earth, and had some fun over Comey’s plight at America’s expense. “Was he fired? You’re kidding!” he deadpanned at the tail end of a photo-op at the State Department.
Down Pennsylvania Avenue, someone was missing from his post. Was it a case of man overboard? No, Spicer hadn’t jumped ship, though he could be forgiven from absconding from the press grilling that awaited. He was just doing naval reserve duties at the Pentagon. But his curious timing quickly fanned rumors about whether he was next in line for a Trump takedown.
Before long, there was even more love for the Trump administration from Russia.
In the most surreal moment yet, the Russian embassy tweeted a photo of its ambassador — and reputed master spy — Sergey Kislyak, in a grip and grin with the President, who by now had already hosted Lavrov in the Oval Office. Kislyak’s interactions with top Trump world associates — including the attorney general and Trump’s own son-in-law before they landed their administration jobs — have spawned a steady stream of questions now being examined by multiple congressional committees. So the President’s appearance with him seemed to either be a case of defiance towards the Beltway crowd, or a misreading of the political damage he risked.
It turned out to be a day for curious photo ops.
Who should be next for the Oval Office treatment but Nixon’s former secretary of state Henry Kissinger? The nonagenarian foreign policy expert was pictured seated side-by-side with Trump — in practically the same spot where he counseled his own scandal tainted boss as the Watergate crisis raged over 40 years ago.
With Spicer away, his deputy Sarah Huckabee Sanders was pressganged into service. Perhaps seeking to stave off the interrogation as long as possible she wished her daughter Scarlett a happy birthday before wading into the fray.
While chaos reined in Washington, there was one more jab from Moscow.
CBS News managed to catch up with Russian President Vladimir Putin at his ice hockey game. “We have nothing to do with” the Comey drama, the Russian president confided. But his smile thickened the mystery.
By the end of the day, Washington was just trying to catch a breath, but not before McCain had adjudged the Comey-gate affair as worthy of a spot on the long list of Washington scandals. “There’s more shoes to drop,” he warned ominously.
But the day had one more touch of farce to come. It emerged that that actor, singer and wrestler known as “The Rock” was giving thought to running for president.
“I think that it’s a real possibility,” he told GQ, but almost no one noticed because the prospect of President The Rock was only about the 25th most surreal political thing that had happened of the previous 24 hours.