THE MORNING PLUM:
The New York Times is now reporting that according to “associates” of former FBI director James B. Comey, President Trump asked Comey at a private dinner in January to pledge his loyalty. Comey told Trump that he could not do that, the sources say, and now blames this in part for Trump’s decision to fire him.
The White House denies this account, but sources close to Comey who spoke to NBC News say this is what happened.
Whatever the truth, this immediately demands that two things happen:
- Congressional investigators looking into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russian meddling in the election must ask Comey about this episode under oath. After all, the account to the Times was likely authorized by Comey in some way.
- If this does not happen, Comey has an obligation to go public with his account of this dinner, and also about other matters, which I’ll get to in a moment.
As the Times story puts it: “Mr. Trump may not have understood that by tradition, F.B.I. directors are not supposed to be political loyalists, which is why Congress in the 1970s passed a law giving them 10-year terms to make them independent of the president.”
This report must be looked at in its larger context. In an interview with NBC News that aired last night, Trump explicitly confirmed that he fired Comey because the FBI is probing potential Trump campaign collusion with Russia. He said:
“When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”
And so, if this demand for loyalty happened, it took place in the context of Trump’s knowledge that Comey was overseeing an investigation into his own campaign — the handling of which Trump himself now says was his reason for firing Comey.
In an interview with me this morning, Harvard professor Laurence Tribe, a persistent Trump critic, argued that this demand for loyalty, if it happened, could constitute an effort to obstruct justice, particularly when viewed in the light of the subsequent firing of Comey.
“The demand for loyalty from the head of the organization investigating those around you, when you have the power to fire that person — if you wrote a novel about obstruction of justice, this would almost be too good to be true,” Tribe told me.
Tribe added that congressional investigators now have an obligation to ask Comey to clarify all of these matters — and if they don’t, Comey has an obligation to go public himself about them.
Remember, there are still more questions about all of this outstanding: In the NBC interview, Trump also claimed that he privately asked Comey if he, Trump, is under investigation and that Comey told him he isn’t. That would also have been improper on Trump’s part, according to some legal experts, so we need to hear from Comey on this episode, too.
Comey must speak out about all of this, Tribe argued. “Congress has an obligation to ask these questions, and if Congress doesn’t grow a pair and make the inquiry totally serious and bipartisan, then I think Comey has an obligation to speak directly to the public,” Tribe told me. “Of all the things that people have said about Comey, nobody has ever questioned his honesty.”
This morning, Trump responded to the Times story alleging a request for loyalty this way:
Trump’s response is being widely reported as a threat leveled at Comey. If anything, this dramatically increases the stakes for Congress — in particular, for congressional Republicans. They need to be asked not just whether this Trump threat is appropriate, but whether they think the congressional investigations into the Russia affair — which are controlled by Republicans — should seek a full accounting of all of this from Comey himself.
All of this once again underscores why a full and independent probe of this whole mess is necessary. Whether conducted by a special prosecutor or a select committee, such an investigation would look not just at Russian meddling and possible collusion, but also at whether Trump asked for Comey’s loyalty; at whether Trump privately asked Comey if he was under investigation; and at the full circumstances and motives leading Trump to fire Comey.
“The agenda of such a probe,” Tribe said, should include “the question of what the decision-making process was that went into the firing of Comey, and why he was fired when he was fired.”
The Comey-Trump dinner, Tribe added, is “America’s version of The Last Supper. It’s a Kryptonite event. It’s very hard to see how the president can squeak out of it.”
* DID TRUMP OBSTRUCT JUSTICE? Critics argue the Comey firing is tantamount to obstruction of justice. Charlie Savage looks at the law in question:
Several federal statutes criminalize actions that impede official investigations. While some examples of illegal ways to thwart the justice system are specific — like killing a witness or destroying evidence — the law also includes broad, catchall prohibitions. For example, Section 1512 of Title 18 makes it a crime if someone corruptly “obstructs, influences or impedes any official proceeding,” even if the proceeding was not yet pending at the time of the act. A conviction under that provision can be punished by up to 20 years in prison.
The firing was legal, but it could still constitute a corrupt effort to obstruct the probe, notes Savage. One expert says that “in theory,” Trump’s act could fall under that. But you’d need to prove Trump fully intended obstruction.
* SCHIFF: YES, TRUMP INTERFERED WITH PROBE: Acting FBI director Andrew McCabe testified that Trump has not interfered with the probe. But on CNN, Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, argued that Trump has already interfered, by firing Comey:
“I don’t think you can say so categorically he’s made no effort to interfere … what Mr. McCabe said may be true in the sense that the President isn’t … trying to interfere with the day-to-day operation of the investigation. But nonetheless, he fired the top cop on that investigation, and I think no one believes this was about Hillary Clinton’s emails. I think it was all about the Russia case.”
Schiff is emerging as one of the most forceful and effective voices against Trump among Democrats.
* DEMOCRATS USE NEW TACTICS IN PUSH FOR SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: McClatchy reports on the new push: Some Senate Democrats are suggesting they may not confirm a new FBI director unless Trump agrees to an independent probe of the Russia affair. Others are suggesting defunding other Justice Department priorities until Republicans relent.
McClatchy notes that a few Republicans are being targeted to flip on this: Sens. Dean Heller (Nev.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.), both up for reelection; and John McCain (Ariz.), who has already said he’d support a select committee. As I have reported, this is the next step.
* A TIMELINE OF SHIFTING WHITE HOUSE EXPLANATIONS: Michelle Ye Hee Lee lays out all of the White House’s shifting explanations for the Comey firing. It starts with the suggestion that Trump acted on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general, and it ends with Trump himself confirming — in an NBC interview that aired last night — that he fired Comey because of the FBI probe into Russian meddling.
Of course, given how problematic that last one is, we can expect it to shift again, perhaps several times, in the next few days.
* GOP MAINTAINS PROTECTIVE WALL AROUND TRUMP: Paul Krugman notes that only a tiny number of Republicans have embraced the idea of an independent probe and explains what it says about today’s GOP:
Maybe there are enough Republicans with a conscience — or, failing that, sufficiently frightened of an electoral backlash — that the attempt to kill the Russia probe will fail … But it’s time to face up to the scary reality here. Most people now realize, I think, that Donald Trump holds basic American political values in contempt. What we need to realize is that much of his party shares that contempt.
All the more reason that Democrats must use all the tactics at their disposal to try to force a special prosecutor and a full accounting.
* AND THE TRUMP TWEETS ARE FLOWING BIGLY: Having a good morning, Mr. President?
Trump appears to be admitting that White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders misled with her initial claim that Trump acted on the recommendation of his deputy attorney general in firing Comey. Also, the administration did hand out “written” explanations for the firing, which turned out to be bogus.