In fact, the four-page letter was never even sent to Comey because White House lawyers quickly determined it should never see the "light of day," Special Counsel Robert Mueller later recounted.
Mueller reviewed the May 2017 letter as part of his wide-ranging investigation and mentioned parts of it in his final report, but the letter has remained largely hidden from the public nearly four years later.
Now, a source connected to Mueller's probe has relayed the contents of the letter to ABC News, which -- especially in light of recent events -- offer a telling look at how Trump viewed the then-leader of the nation's top law enforcement agency.
“Your conduct has grown unpredictable and even erratic – including rambling and self-indulgent public performances that have baffled experts, citizens and law enforcement professionals alike – making it impossible for you to effectively lead this agency,” Trump wrote to Comey.
The letter then chastised Comey for "spen[ding] too much time cultivating a public image, and not enough time getting your own house in order.”
Almost half of the letter focused on Comey's handling of the investigation into then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server, including Comey's testimony to Congress days earlier defending his decision to publicly announce a year before that Clinton had been "extremely careless" with classified information but should not face charges.
That testimony was “another media circus full of unprofessional conjecture, bizarre legal theories, and irresponsible speculation,” Trump's letter stated.
The letter falsely insisted that Comey's "strange legal decisions and contradictory public statements" had "sowed confusion" and inspired "a near-rebellion by many rank-and-file agents" within the FBI.
Even at the time, FBI officials disputed such claims, which were repeated by White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders when she asserted to a reporter that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey. She later told federal investigators that her comment to the reporter "was not founded on anything," according to Mueller's report.
Seemingly incensed by the wave of media reports that alleged concerning contacts between members of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and Russian operatives, Trump's letter to Comey also derided the doomed FBI director for what the president called Comey’s "failure" to stop "rampant leaking."
“You’ve shown a total inability to control leaks, both within and outside the agency. As a result, intelligence -- real and fake – has been weaponized into an instrument of partisan warfare," the letter said.
Ironically, as president, Trump has been plagued by "leaks" about his own internal deliberations and personal conduct.
Nevertheless, in Comey's testimony to Congress days before he was fired, he publicly confirmed -- for at least the second time -- that the FBI was investigating whether any Trump associates had coordinated with Russian operatives during the 2016 campaign.
Mueller's team ultimately didn't find enough evidence to support charges of any coordination with Russia, but the Justice Department's inspector general later concluded that the underlying FBI investigation into members of Trump's campaign was properly opened and based on "sufficient" concerns.
In the letter to Comey, Trump emphasized Comey's repeated assurances that the president was not a focus of the FBI investigation. That changed, though, when Trump fired Comey, prompting Mueller's appointment and launching a new line of inquiry into whether Trump was trying to obstruct a federal investigation.
Still, in the letter, Trump told Comey that his "actions and decisions" reflect "a total lack of judgment and have left our country deeply divided and rightfully angry.”
“America needs an FBI director who inspires confidence across all layers of government, and who the public believes to be fair, impartial and beyond reproach,” Trump concluded.
“You have lost the confidence of the skilled professionals in your command, the congressional lawmakers with whom you work, and the general public whom you serve,” the president added.
Without offering specifics about the letter's contents, the New York Times first reported its existence in September 2017, saying the letter was turned over to Mueller's team and was being described as "an unvarnished view of Mr. Trump’s thinking."
The letter had been put together by the president's senior aide Stephen Miller, based on "arguments and specific language" dictated by Trump, Miller's own research, and then "several rounds of edits" from the president, according to Mueller's report.
Mueller noted that the letter "critique[d] Comey's judgment and conduct, including his May 3 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, his handling of the Clinton email investigation, and his failure to hold leakers accountable." But Mueller offered little more about how Trump initially explained his decision to fire Comey.
When the White House Counsel's Office saw Trump's four-page letter, they believed it "should '[n]ot [see the] light of day' and that it would be better to offer '[n]o other rationales' for the firing than what" then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had articulated themselves, Mueller's report said.
In letters they each wrote, Sessions and Rosenstein recommended Comey be fired solely based on his handling of the Clinton email investigation.
A year later, the Justice Department’s inspector general concluded that Comey’s “justifications” for publicly announcing the FBI’s findings in the case were not “reasonable or persuasive,” and the announcement itself not only “violated long-standing Department practice and protocol” by publicly criticizing “uncharged conduct” but also “usurped the authority of the Attorney General.” The inspector general did not suggest Comey committed any criminal wrongdoing in the case.
After Comey's firing was announced on May 9, 2017, the White House released the letters from Sessions and Rosenstein, along with a brief -- and significantly different -- letter from Trump.
"I have accepted their recommendation and you are hereby ... removed from office," Trump wrote in the letter he did send to Comey.
Nearly four years later, Trump is now the one leaving office, accused of mismanaging the U.S. government's response to a deadly, global pandemic, and impeached -- for the second time -- for allegedly inciting a violent mob to storm the U.S. Capitol with unfounded claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.
Trump has defended his actions and rhetoric, calling his second impeachment "a continuation of the greatest witch hunt in the history of politics."
Two former White House attorneys who, according to Mueller, were involved in the internal deliberations over the initial letter did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment for this article.