On CNN Wednesday night, President Trump’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, suggested that we’re all getting it wrong on the president’s interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt, during which Trump admitted to firing his former FBI director amid anger over the Russia investigation.
This echoes a recent claim by Trump that NBC “fudged” the presentation of the interview in some kind of nefarious way. Sekulow didn’t say this, but in an exchange with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Sekulow denied that Trump’s comments showed he had fired James B. Comey over the investigation (bolding added):
You know that when there are interviews, there are edits and there is a longer transcript. And I will just tell you without disclosing any detail, that when you review the entire transcript, it is very clear as to what happened . . . in our professional discussions with the office of special counsel, we have addressed that on multiple occasions appropriately. . . . we think the entire transcript, without question, supports the president realized it when he fired James Comey, it might actually extend this investigation and he said that on the tape.
It’s not clear why Sekulow declined to “disclose any detail,” which seems to imply that he is privy to a secret longer transcript that we all aren’t. Because Trump’s legal team has already laid out this argument about the longer transcript exonerating him in a memo they sent to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in January.
Still, since Sekulow brought it up, this is a good occasion to look at their claim.
The Trump quote that we have all been citing for over a year now is this one: “I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it. . . . when I decided to just do it, I said to myself — you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”
In their memo, Trump’s lawyers argued the president didn’t actually say to Holt that he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation. To support this, they point out that later in the interview, Trump said that he fully expected that the inquiry would continue after Comey was gone, and even that it might go on longer as a result.
The memo from Trump’s legal team pointed to this quote from Trump in the full interview to bolster their case (bolding added):
As far as I’m concerned, I want that thing [the Russia investigation] to be absolutely done properly. When I did this now, I said I probably maybe will confuse people. Maybe I’ll expand that — you know, I’ll lengthen the time because it should be over with. It should — in my opinion, should’ve been over with a long time ago because it — all it is an excuse. But I said to myself I might even lengthen out the investigation. But I have to do the right thing for the American people. He’s the wrong man for that position.
Trump’s lawyers claim this shows that he actually fired Comey for “incompetence,” while fully knowing “his action could actually lengthen the Russia investigation” and “would not terminate it.”
But Trump’s own quote actually says more than that. While the president did say he expected the investigation might “lengthen out,” Trump also said pretty directly that he fired Comey because he wanted the inquiry to be “done properly.”
Aaron Blake suggested on Thursday that this doesn’t get Trump off the hook for obstruction, because his remarks are still consistent with the possible goal of replacing Comey with someone who would run the investigation “in a more Trump-friendly direction.”
I think this is right, but I’d put it somewhat differently: The key to this is what Trump means by getting rid of Comey to do the investigation “properly.” In the very same interview, Trump said the whole collusion “thing” is a “made up story.” Thus, what Trump really meant by “properly,” in light of his own words, is to run the investigation on the premise that collusion — or, more accurately, conspiracy by his campaign with Russian sabotage of our election on his behalf — never happened, that Democrats made the whole “story” up.
In light of that, it is difficult to see how doing the investigation “properly” can mean anything other than refraining from investigating any evidence of any kind that raises questions about whether that conspiracy did or did not happen.
To run through a very partial list, this would mean not investigating the full circumstances surrounding Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting at Trump Tower — which he undertook expecting to receive dirt on Hillary Clinton, supplied by Russia — or what happened before and after; not investigating former Trump aide George Papadopoulos’ early discovery that such dirt had been gathered or whether he told campaign higher-ups about it; not investigating the communications between campaign chairman Paul Manafort (who is now cooperating with Mueller) and a Kremlin-linked oligarch; and not investigating any number of other contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russia.
Trump may or may not had anything specific in mind when he spoke to Holt. But if doing the investigation “properly” means, “operating from the premise that no conspiracy ever happened,” none of that could be “properly” investigated.
If anything, the interview quotes presented by Trump’s own legal team would seem to underscore that Trump fired Comey, at least in part, to stop that sort of investigation from happening. The idea Trump knew the investigation could go on anyway means nothing. He could easily have meant the investigation into Russia’s electoral sabotage — minus any investigation of Trump campaign conspiracy with it — would continue.
Now, the big question Mueller needs to answer is whether Trump’s firing of Comey constituted obstructing the investigation with “corrupt intent,” for instance, to protect himself and his cronies from scrutiny. It is difficult to say whether Mueller will find evidence of this in Trump’s comments to Holt, which he will weigh along with the many other things that Trump did to try to obstruct the investigation — such as demanding that Comey drop the investigation of his national security adviser; pressuring his attorney general to protect him from the investigation; and, of course, moving to fire Mueller himself.
But, obviously, the full Lester Holt interview does not exonerate Trump of that intent in any way.