President Donald Trump listens during his meeting with U.S. Mayors and Governors for a Infrastructure Summit in the State Dinning Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 8, 2017. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)
Former FBI Director James Comey went to Capitol Hill Thursday with an explosive tale of political impropriety: How President Donald Trump tried to influence the FBI’s Russia investigation by putting pressure on Comey to back off from aspects of the case.
We believe Comey. He was a straight-talking witness who gave credible testimony to the Senate intelligence committee. He relied on detailed note-taking to describe Trump’s unsuccessful efforts to draw him into a cooperative relationship that should never exist between a president and FBI director.
The president crossed a line.
But about that line: Did Trump inadvertently cross the line from appropriate to inappropriate behavior? In other words, did Trump the neophyte president unwittingly test the FBI director’s autonomy? Or did Trump go all the way to illegal behavior by directing Comey to tamper with a criminal investigation?
Comey wouldn’t answer the question of whether he believed Trump committed obstruction of justice by attempting to shut down parts of the investigation. Still, Comey’s response made Thursday a watershed day of defeat for the president: Comey said he expected that special counsel Robert Mueller, now conducting the Russia probe, would decide whether to accuse Trump of that. Comey, fired by Trump on May 9, said his notes of his interactions with Trump are now in the hands of Mueller’s investigators.
Thus it appears Comey’s firing, and Trump’s dealings with Comey before that, are now part of the broader investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign.
Here’s how Thursday hurts Trump: Comey said one of Trump’s complaints to him was that the Russia probe, though not focused on the president, constituted "a cloud" impairing his ability to pursue his political agenda. Trump wanted Comey to lift that cloud. But now that cloud over Trump is a gathering storm. As long as Mueller’s work continues Trump will operate under the specter of a criminal investigation.
How bad is this for the president? Trump now has a private attorney, Marc Kasowitz, who issued a denial Thursday, saying the president "never sought to impede" the Russia inquiry and never directed or suggested that Comey stop investigating anyone. The president’s Twitter feed was uncharacteristically silent. How that must have frustrated Trump the social media fiend. It was left to his spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to refute Comey’s dramatic claim that Trump lied about his reasons for firing Comey. "I can definitively say the president is not a liar," she said. Not a great companion slogan for "Make America Great Again."
Remember that the original focus of the investigation was Russia’s efforts to meddle in American politics. Comey told senators the Russians purposefully interfered in the election and "they will be back." Comey wouldn’t discuss details or any evidence that people in Trump’s orbit colluded with the Russians.
Beyond those issues, Comey’s tale focused on Trump expressing undue interest in the investigation, using the power of his office to ingratiate himself with Comey and seek his loyalty. In a Feb. 14 one-on-one encounter in the Oval Office, Trump asked Comey to lay off Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who is one subject of the probe. "I hope you can let this go," Comey said Trump told him about Flynn.
Comey described his dealings with Trump as awkward and disturbing because the president was trying to influence a criminal investigation. Talk about meddling: Comey was especially unnerved in the Feb. 14 meeting when Trump cleared the room to be alone with Comey. Even Comey’s boss, the attorney general, was kicked out. Comey said Trump didn’t issue a direct order to Comey to release Flynn from the investigation, but "I took it as a direction."
The way Comey described it, when the president gets you alone in the Oval Office, looks you in the eye and expresses his wishes, you understand you’re being given an order. Comey felt intimidated. Who wouldn’t be? "This is the president of the United States with me alone saying, ‘I hope this.’ I took it as this is what he wants me to do," Comey said. "I didn’t obey that."
Comey thinks he was fired in due course because of the Russia investigation. Trump shifted explanations but at one point said the FBI director was axed for "the Russia thing." If Trump’s intent was to punish Comey for not reshaping the Russia inquiry, that would add to the evidence of wrongdoing.
Comey’s testimony damaged the president’s credibility. But complex investigations take twists and turns and don’t conclude quickly. In time the country will learn enough to render judgment. Were Trump’s actions permissible, inept or nefarious?
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Former FBI Director James Comey appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill June 8, 2017 in Washington, DC.