With former FBI director James B. Comey everywhere in the media right now, what his new book has to say about President Trump is being quickly slotted into a partisan narrative. One of the consequences is that those of his comments getting the most attention may be the least important.
There’s a better way to understand Comey: to separate the facts he relates from his opinions. The former are vital to the Russia investigation and the questions it raises, including whether Trump obstructed justice. The latter are pretty much irrelevant.
But that’s not what you’d conclude from the coverage of Comey’s book rollout. Look around and you’ll see headlines like “Comey calls Trump ‘morally unfit to be president,’” “Comey compares Trump to mob boss” or “Comey: Trump treats women like they’re ‘meat.’”
It’s not a surprise that news outlets would pick up on the most dramatic pieces of what Comey writes or what he said in his first interview with ABC News. But Comey’s opinions are just that, opinions. Everybody’s got opinions. I may agree with Comey that Trump is morally unfit to be president, but that doesn’t mean it’s particularly important that he thinks so.
But here’s how we locate what’s really meaningful in his account of his time as FBI director: If Comey is talking about something that happened — what transpired in a meeting, what Trump said to him, what evidence the FBI uncovered about Russia — then it’s important. If he’s saying how he felt or what he believes today, it certainly might be interesting to hear, but in the end it doesn’t make too much of a difference.
What Comey is telling us about what actually happened hinges on the question of whether Comey is a reliable witness. That brings us to the different ways Trump’s critics and defenders are talking about Comey right now. To hear Trump tell it, Comey is a “Slimeball!,” “a proven LEAKER & LIAR,” “a man who always ends up badly and out of whack (he is not smart!), will go down as the WORST FBI Director in history, by far!” who “committed many crimes.” The White House is saying essentially the same thing, albeit with slightly less juvenile language.
By the way, it’s worth noting that Trump’s critics have a much more nuanced and realistic view of Comey. They don’t deny that Comey is sanctimonious and plainly sees himself as the Last Man of Integrity. They’re still justifiably angry over Comey’s decision to violate FBI rules and norms when it came to Hillary Clinton, first holding a highly unusual press conference in the summer of 2016 to excoriate her, and then announcing, 11 days before the election, that the bureau had reopened its investigation, a decision that in all likelihood cost her the election.
To this day, Comey’s justification for that decision is absurdly weak. That should be of great interest to historians, but it still doesn’t tell us whether to believe Comey or Trump about what went on between them.
And that’s what really matters at the moment. Comey says that Trump asked for his loyalty, and that he wanted him to go easy on Michael Flynn, at a moment when Trump may have known that Flynn had committed a crime by lying to the FBI. Trump says it never happened. Whom do you believe?
Even liberals who will never forgive Comey for his actions during the election don’t think he’s dishonest. On the other hand, we all know that Trump is not simply a liar but is also one of history’s most profligate liars. Does that mean that we can be 100 percent sure that Trump is the one not telling the truth? No, but given who the two men are, and that Comey made notes of their conversations and contemporaneously told colleagues about what had transpired between him and the president, the evidence weighs heavily in Comey’s favor.
That is, unless you believe that even at that time, Comey was thinking, “I’ll write up some fake notes of a conversation that never happened, then lie to other people in the FBI about it, just in case Trump ever fires me and I want to become his public antagonist.”
Even so, as Comey correctly pointed out when George Stephanopoulos asked him whether his conversations with Trump constituted obstruction of justice, he can only provide part of the answer:
“Possibly. I mean, it’s certainly some evidence of obstruction of justice. It would depend and — and I’m just a witness in this case, not the investigator or prosecutor, it would depend upon other things that reflected on his intent.”
If you believe Trump, then it doesn’t matter because the conversation never happened. But if you believe Comey, as I think most reasonable people would, then he has provided an important set of facts that have to be dealt with — by prosecutors, by Congress and by the voters. That’s true whether you think Comey is an admirable person or not.