President Trump. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

So why did the president ask his vice president and attorney general to leave the room?

The New York Times reports — and the Washington Post and other news organizations confirm — that President Trump, at a meeting with then-FBI Director James B. Comey the day after national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned, asked Vice President Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to leave him and Comey alone in the Oval Office.

At which point Trump, according to a contemporaneous memo written by Comey, asked the FBI director to drop the Flynn probe. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump told Comey, according to the memo as reported by the Times. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Does this rise to the level of criminal obstruction of justice? We don’t yet know enough to know. What was Trump’s tone? How insistent was he? Perhaps it wasn’t obstruction at the time — merely enormously unwise and even more improper. The scope of that impropriety is underlined by the reported fact that the president apparently wanted to convey his desire — his implicit instruction? — that the Flynn investigation be ended behind closed doors, with no other witnesses.

This is the kind of conversation that rational, experienced presidents know not to have. It is the kind of conversation that a White House counsel should make sparklingly, crystal clear to a president that he is not to engage in, not even close. It is the kind of conversation that seems completely in character for Trump, who, over the course of the campaign and now in office, has betrayed no — zero — understanding of the necessary separation of the president and his Justice Department when it comes to making independent judgments about political matters and political opponents.

Trump’s plea on Flynn’s behalf — perhaps it was prompted by the belief that his aide was a “good guy,” perhaps by fear about what goods that good guy might have on him — is the mirror image of his debate pronouncement that “if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.” The candidate who threatens to jail his opponent easily becomes the president who instructs his FBI director to close an inconvenient investigation.

But the Trump-Comey Oval Office encounter, however Comey took it at the time, becomes even more sinister in light of the FBI director’s firing. In January, Trump reportedly sought a pledge of loyalty from Comey and failed to obtain it. In February, he pressured Comey to drop a pending investigation. In May, he fired him over “this Russia thing.” The lawyers can debate whether this satisfies the technical elements of obstruction. As a political matter, it more and more looks that way.