In an extraordinary hearing, former FBI director James Comey told a compelling tale of a president trying to pressure and sway the lead investigator — first to lay off Michael T. Flynn and then to “lift the cloud” of the Russian investigation. What Comey confirmed was a point we have made frequently — President Trump is in peril for abusing his powers, perhaps obstruction of justice, not for the underlying collusion investigation. Comey supplied a big part of the picture and made clear that here is substantial evidence from Comey and others to support that conclusion.
Comey focused on the Feb. 14 meeting when Trump cleared the room and then said he “hoped” Comey would let go of the Flynn probe. As Comey pointed out, when a president sends everyone out, looks the FBI director in the eye and says he hopes a case will go away, that amounts to an order. “I took it as a direction,” he said. That in and of itself was inappropriate in the extreme. As Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, put it, clearing the room and making the “ask” was wrong. Playing defense, Republicans on the committee tried to shift the issue to Comey’s failure to immediately rebuke the president. “I was stunned,” he said. He also explained that in essence, there was no one to report it to, given Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s impending recusal. Republicans did their best to deflect the question as to Comey’s failure to raise a red flag. While politically predictable, their questioning implicitly recognized that Trump had acted improperly, if not illegally.
In response to questions about Trump’s public comments, Comey said bluntly that Trump had not told the truth when he said Comey had requested the infamous dinner meeting and when he said he never asked for Comey’s loyalty. This is more significant than one might imagine. In essence, it is part of a coverup of conduct that may be illegal and certainly was improper.
Comey made clear that Flynn is under investigation for allegedly lying to FBI investigators. He did, however, confirm that Trump was not personally the subject of a counterintelligence investigation. Interestingly, he noted that one person in his executive team was concerned that this was problematic, since the campaign was under investigation and so the candidate of that campaign might be part of that.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., led Comey in a series of questioning that made clear that in all these questions, Trump didn’t inquire about the danger to the United States posed by Russia as a result of interference with our electoral system. The lack of concern about an investigation into a hostile power’s cyberattack on the United States contrasts with Trump’s insistence on clearing himself from a “cloud.” Trump looks upon the entire Russia investigation as a “cloud,” a political problem for him. The lack of concern about the nature of the underlying Russian meddling confirms what many knew already — this is a deeply narcissistic man who cannot help but put himself first.
Perhaps the highlight of the hearing came during questioning from Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who incidentally was also a star in Wednesday’s hearing when senior intelligence officials refused to answer questions without legal justification. Trying to determine what Trump was asking him in the Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting, King asked whether this was not a Henry II situation, quoting Shakespeare’s great line as the British monarch expressed exasperation with his nemesis, Thomas Becket (later murdered in the play): “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Comey echoed the line, agreeing that he had a similar thought.
Comey certainly raised a number of questions. For one thing, what Trump meant by “cloud” is unclear. If he was referring merely to clear him publicly, the request is not so serious. If the “cloud” was the Russian investigation as a whole, then it was a request to get rid of the entire investigation, a far more problematic request. Comey also suggested that both Sessions and Jared Kushner hung around after others left the Feb. 14 meeting, raising the possibility that they knew Trump was going to behave inappropriately.
Much as Republicans tried to make this about Comey’s conduct — his failure to tell the president not to ask him about Flynn, his decision to leak the contents of his memo — Comey succeeded in painting a disturbing picture of a president trying to convert an FBI director into his minion and trying to get his friend into the clear. And just as disturbing is the realization that in the most devastating attack on American democracy, Trump cares only about Trump.