The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Comey just blew apart a leading GOP talking point about Trump and Russia

The former FBI director testifies about his claim that President Trump said he hoped Comey could let the Flynn investigation go. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Matt McClain / The Washington Post/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load


Former FBI director James B. Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee has already delivered a devastating blow to one of the GOP’s leading party-wide talking points about the Russia affair.

The blow came in two key exchanges. The first came when Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) pressed Comey on his claim, in his written testimony, that President Trump had asked Comey to drop the FBI probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Comey’s written statement quoted Trump saying: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Risch then pressed Comey on that:

RISCH: He did not direct you to let it go?
COMEY: Not in his words, no.
RISCH: He did not order you to let it go?
COMEY: Again, those words are not an order. … The reason I keep saying “his words” is, I took it as a direction. He’s 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.” I didn’t obey that. But that’s the way I took it.

Note that Comey refused to acknowledge the premise of Risch’s narrowly drawn (deliberately so) question. Risch wanted Comey to say Trump had not directly commanded him to drop the Flynn probe. Comey would only concede that Trump’s “words” did not superficially do this. He would not allow that Trump did not intend his words as a command. In fact, he said he took it as just that — “a direction.” Then, later, this exchange with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) further clarified Comey’s perception of the intention behind Trump’s “request”:

RUBIO: You perceived it as an order, given his position, the setting, and some of the circumstances?
Key moments from the former FBI director's testimony on his interactions with President Trump. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Elsewhere in his testimony, Comey flatly confirmed that Flynn was in “legal jeopardy” when Trump made this “request.” Elsewhere still, Comey also addressed the claim, in his written statement, that Trump had demanded his loyalty. In so doing, Comey clarified that he viewed this demand in the “context of asking me to stay.” What Comey seems to have meant by this is that he perceived his ability to stay in the job — in which he serves at the pleasure of the president — as contingent, to some degree or other, on his display of “loyalty” toward the president.

Comey paints a portrait of Trump: ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’

Post Opinion columnists Ruth Marcus and Jennifer Rubin deconstruct the legal and moral quagmire facing President Donald Trump. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Republicans have widely said that Comey’s written testimony exonerated Trump, because in it, Comey also said several times that he informed Trump that he is not personally under investigation, as Trump had previously claimed. But Comey’s testimony today reveals this to be nothing more than a laughable exercise in misdirection. What’s at issue here is Trump’s broader conduct — his effort to convert his relationship with one of the most powerful law enforcement officials in the country, one who oversees vast investigative machinery, into what Comey termed a “patronage relationship.”

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

The FBI director is supposed to be independent of presidential influence, which is why he is appointed to 10-year terms. But Comey has confirmed that he took Trump’s demand for loyalty as a condition — to some degree or other — of his continued service at Trump’s pleasure. He has confirmed that he took Trump’s “request” that he drop the FBI probe into his former national security adviser — and a former campaign adviser — as a directive, as an “order.” And on top of that, he confirmed elsewhere today that he took detailed notes on all of this because he expected Trump to lie to the American people about what really occurred in these private conversations.

This probably ensures that all of the congressional investigations into the Russia affair will have to look at whether the sum total of this presidential conduct adds up to obstruction of justice. It also probably means the special counsel is going to look at this question, too. Whether or not it actually will add up to obstruction is, of course, uncertain.

CNN succumbs to its own Comey hype

But let’s be clear on what Comey is alleging. Comey is claiming that Trump explicitly sought to convert one of the leading law enforcement officials in the country into a personal loyalist. Comey is claiming that Trump demanded, seemingly as a condition for his continued employment, that he voluntarily shed his position’s institutional independence. And Comey is claiming that, after having done all this, Trump told Comey that he “hoped” he would drop the FBI probe into Flynn’s conduct. Comey took this presidential effort as an “order,” which would plainly constitute overt interference in an ongoing FBI investigation into his former national security adviser’s ties to a foreign power that — according to the widely held conclusion of the intelligence community — tried to sabotage our election, in order to tip it to Trump.

The only way Republicans can continue to claim this constitutes “exoneration” is to also hold the position that none of the above is cause for concern. Yesterday, Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes had this to say about the meaning of Comey’s written testimony:

Comey is describing here conduct that a society committed to the rule of law simply cannot accept in a president … this document is about a far more important question to the preservation of liberty in a society based on legal norms and rules: the abuse of the core functions of the presidency. It’s about whether we can trust the President — not the President in the abstract, but the particular embodiment of the presidency in the person of Donald J. Trump — to supervise the law enforcement apparatus of the United States in fashion consistent with his oath of office. I challenge anyone to read this document and come away with a confidently affirmative answer to that question.

Comey’s spoken testimony today only makes this question harder to answer in the affirmative. But House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is now saying that Trump is “just new to this” and is unfamiliar with protocol. This idea — that Trump only needs to learn what the rules are — elides the much more likely explanation, which is that Trump’s behavior is rooted in a sincerely held belief that our institutions and rules should not represent a check on his power and that he’s willing to actively abuse his power in order to further weaken those constraints. Comey’s testimony today should substantially increase press scrutiny of the widespread refusal of Republicans to acknowledge how serious a problem this has become.

* CONGRESS WILL NOW TURN TO POSSIBLE OBSTRUCTION: The Post reports that Comey’s testimony means the congressional probes will now focus on whether Trump’s interactions with Comey were obstruction of justice. One expert sums up the line of inquiry:

“I think that the stuff that’s now been put on the record, if you add it all up together, to me it spells obstruction of justice,” Ohlin said. “The pieces are (1) Trump demanding loyalty, (2) Trump telling Comey or directing Comey to end the Flynn or close the Flynn investigation (3) Trump firing Comey when Comey refuses to close the Russia investigation, and then (4) Trump admitting on national television that the reason he fired Comey was because of the Russia investigation and not any of the other reasons cited in the memo.”

Whether or not the conclusion is right, this seems like a useful framework through which to think about all of what we’re hearing.

* SPECIAL COUNSEL HAS AUTHORITY TO PROBE OBSTRUCTION: This, from the New York Times article on Comey’s written testimony, is the key point:

Mr. Trump’s intent is important. Some in Congress believe Mr. Trump was trying to interfere with the F.B.I. investigation, and the newly appointed special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has the authority to investigate obstruction.

Thus, the conversations between Comey and Trump themselves may now be a subject of the special counsel’s probe. This is why the GOP spin that Comey exonerated Trump is nonsense.

* GOP’S TALKING POINTS ON COMEY ARE FULL OF LIES: Philip Rucker obtained a copy of the official talking points that Republicans are using to push back on Comey’s testimony. Here are two key bits:

President Trump feels completely and totally vindicated by … Comey’s opening testimony and is eager to move forward … the testimony also confirms that President Trump did not impede or engage in obstruction of justice of the investigation.

The notions that the testimony vindicated Trump or confirmed that Trump did not engage in obstruction are both lies.

* COMEY TESTIMONY EXPOSES TRUMP’S AUTHORITARIANISM: E.J. Dionne Jr. has a very nice column linking the Comey testimony directly to Trump’s authoritarian tendencies:

In Trump world, everything is a deal, everything is transactional, everything is about personal loyalty — to him. What can I give you to make you do what I want? What can I threaten you with to force you to do what I want? … In constitutional democracies, rules and norms get in the way of this sort of thing. Other institutions in government have autonomy and derive their authority from being at least partly independent of politics … A president, unlike a despot, can’t unilaterally change the rules that surround a legal investigation.

Exactly. Whether or not Trump’s conduct is ultimately proved to constitute obstruction of justice, this deep rot of bad faith and contempt for our institutions has been decisively exposed.

The scene in Washington during former FBI director James B. Comey’s testimony

WASHINGTON, DC - June 08: People walk past the Capitol the morning before former FBI director James B. Comey appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday June 08, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

* GOP SABOTAGE OF OBAMACARE IS WORKING: Republicans keep citing insurers pulling out of markets as proof that the Affordable Care Act is collapsing. But Politico reports that the Trump/GOP refusal to commit to continued cost-sharing reductions is the real problem:

Many health care experts and insurers contend it is Republican actions over the last five months that have turned a difficult situation into an outright emergency that could knock out health insurance coverage for millions of Americans … Most significantly, the Trump administration’s refusal to commit to continue paying crucial subsidies — estimated at $7 billion for this year — has made health plans skittish about remaining in the marketplaces as crucial deadlines approach for 2018.

GOP sabotage is having its intended effect (never mind that millions may be hurt). But majorities say the GOP is to blame for any future problems, so maybe this isn’t such a brilliant strategy.

* GOP VOTERS STICKING BY TRUMP IN GEORGIA: The Washington Examiner talked to Republican voters in the Atlanta suburban district where Republican Karen Handel is running against Democrat Jon Ossoff in a House special election:

Republicans in this upscale Atlanta suburb said they weren’t concerned about the Senate testimony of James Comey or implications that Trump acted improperly in firing him as FBI director because of a desire to kill an investigation into his possible Russia ties … They expect he’ll have more bumps in the road in the months ahead, but that isn’t diminishing their support for him or, significantly, Handel.

These are the types of voters (college-educated suburban whites) that are key to Democrats’ hopes of winning the House, but remember: Republican Tom Price won this district in 2016 by 23 points.