It was political drama at its very best: A suave and articulate ex-FBI chief testifying in front of a congressional hearing about private, mysterious talks he had with the president over the phone and in the Oval Office regarding an ongoing high-level investigation about possible election collusion with a hostile country.
With a mesmerized nation as his audience, James Comey pulled no punches as he spoke to and took questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee for nearly three hours on Thursday. Sounding every bit like the polished attorney he is by training and profession, Mr. Comey came across relaxed and confident. So much so, that it was tempting to ignore the fact that he clearly had an axe to grind for personal reasons.
Getting fired is never a very pleasant affair, and the way Mr. Comey was dismissed — he found out through the media while traveling to Los Angeles — was particularly painful. In fact, he originally thought it was a prank, until his aides confirmed that it was true. Whether Mr. Comey should have been fired in the first place, and, if yes, whether this was the most appropriate way to do it, are very debatable questions. But one thing is pretty certain: Mr. Comey, like most other people in similar situations, has every reason to try to hit back at his former boss.
Perhaps Mr. Comey himself stated it best during the hearing, when in response to a question by Senator John Cornyn of Texas, he replied, “I’m obviously hopelessly biased, given that I was the one fired.”
Even the most well-intentioned individual would find it extremely difficult, if not downright impossible, to ensure that his recollection of facts, let alone the interpretation of those facts, are not colored by a “hopeless bias.”
Willingly or inadvertently, anger and anguish have a way of affecting one’s recollections. Though it was under oath, and there is no reason to believe Mr. Comey intended to say an untruth, his testimony must be taken, to say the least, with a grain of salt.
Noted legal scholars on both sides of the political divide have asserted that even if Mr. Trump did indeed instruct the FBI chief to actually drop an investigation — something the president vociferously denies — he may have violated protocol and political correctness but didn’t break the law.
Even Mr. Comey seemed to agree with this theory, saying, “I’m not a legal scholar, so smarter people have answered this better, but speaking as a legal matter, the president, as the head of the Executive Branch… in theory, we have important norms against this — [can] direct that anybody can be investigated or anybody not be investigated. I think he has the legal authority because all of us ultimately report in the Executive Branch up to the president.”
According to Mr. Comey, the president supposedly said to him in a private conversation, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
During the hearing, Senator James Risch of Idaho, himself a former prosecutor, openly asked Mr. Comey whether he knew of any case “where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where… they said, or thought, they hoped for an outcome?”
In response, Mr. Comey acknowledged that the president didn’t give him any order, but claimed that he took the president words as “a direction.”
“You may have taken it as a direction, but that’s not what he said,” Senator Risch responded.
For his part, the president seemed almost pleased with Comey’s testimony.
At three in the morning, when most of the country was sound asleep, a very-much-awake Mr. Trump sent out a message, stating that “Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication … and wow, Comey is a leaker!”
He was, of course, referring to Mr. Comey’s admission that after he had been fired, he purposely leaked a memo he had written about his conversation with the president by giving it to a close friend and asking him to share its content with a reporter.
The president has also offered to testify “under oath” to dispute Comey’s assertions, and indicated that he would be “glad” to speak with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
This prompted Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, to suggest inviting Mr. Trump to testify before Congress, an idea rejected by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who insisted, “I think it’s inappropriate for the president to testify publicly,” and stated that it would create a “show” that would “not [be] good for our democracy.”
While extremely rare, such an appearance would not be unprecedented. After many in Congress raised questions about then-President Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon former President Richard Nixon, Ford agreed to appear before the House Judiciary Committee, where, amid tough questioning, he firmly denied having made any sort of deal with Nixon prior to his resignation.
At this point, it is premature to say whether such an appearance by President Trump would serve any constructive purpose. Yet Mr. Ford’s concluding words at his congressional appearance would be relevant to the current saga as well. After expressing his hope that he had managed to “at least [clear] the air” about the pardon, President Ford declared, “I trust that all of us can get back to the job of trying to solve our problems, both at home and abroad.”
Until Mr. Mueller and the congressional investigators wrap up their work seeking to determine whether any crime was committed by anyone at all in this matter, the most beneficial thing that can be done is to allow both the White House and the full House and Senate to go back to dealing with the real and pressing foreign and domestic issues facing this country.