Former FBI director James B. Comey may have the most diverse group of critics of anyone caught up in the Russia investigations. Hillary Clinton’s supporters, with much justification, think Comey’s gratuitous letter released just before the 2016 election regarding Clinton’s handling of her emails tipped the scales in candidate Donald Trump’s favor. Likewise, many Democrats think that Comey’s decision to present a written explanation for why he did not recommend prosecution — which harshly criticized Clinton’s handling of her emails — contravened normal prosecutorial practice, as did his testimony to Congress.
Trump cultists see Comey as the man trying to bring down President Trump after refusing to recommend Clinton’s prosecution. In quintessentially hysterical language, the president attacked Comey again today in response to Comey’s highly anticipated book. The Post reports:
President Trump on Friday lashed out at former FBI director James B. Comey on Twitter, calling him a “weak and untruthful slime ball” who deserved to be fired “for the terrible job he did.”
“It was my great honor to fire James Comey!” Trump wrote in his first remarks since advance copies surfaced of Comey’s upcoming book that includes blistering descriptions of Trump and his presidency.
In a pair of tweets, Trump accused Comey of leaking classified information and lying to Congress under oath. And Trump said Comey’s handling of an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state would “go down as one of the worst ‘botch jobs’ of history.”
One does not need to approve of Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation — or his decision to release a potboiler before the Russia investigation is complete — to believe that Comey is an honest man who has provided critical information damaging to Trump. Indeed, based on contemporaneous notes and testimony of corroborating witnesses, we can conclude that Comey was almost surely telling the truth about Trump’s efforts to gain Comey’s personal loyalty and Trump’s attempts to squash the Russia investigation. Put differently, Trump’s Twitter eruption reminds us that you don’t have to worship Comey to know he has done his duty in putting an unhinged, lawless president in the special counsel’s crosshairs. (In a Post-ABC News poll discussed below, 48 percent think Comey is more believable, while only 32 percent pick Trump.)
Comey’s colorful, insulting observations about Trump may have temporarily transformed a serious constitutional standoff into a media circus. (Thanks a lot, Mr. Comey.) That said, we should all remember that no matter what antics Trump is engaged in and no matter how bizarre the outbursts from him and bit players become (e.g., Stephen K. Bannon’s recommendation to fire the investigators), these are all sideshows to the main event: the methodical and inexorable progress of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.
Mueller doesn’t much care if Comey thought Trump’s face looked “slightly orange, with bright half-moons under his eyes” (which Comey attributes to tanning goggles), or if Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) wants to “impeach” the FBI director, or if Sean Hannity claims the “Deep State” (staffed by Republican Mueller as well as two Republican Trump appointees — Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray) is staging a coup. Mueller has witnesses, documents, bank records, indictments and maybe even access to audio tapes created by Trump attorney Michael D. Cohen. Moreover, Mueller has the overwhelming support of the American people. The latest Post-ABC News poll finds:
Nearly 7 in 10 adults say they support Mueller’s focus on possible collusion with Russia. Sixty-four percent say they want the special counsel investigating Trump’s business activities. And a 58 percent majority supports investigating alleged payments by Trump associates to silence women who say they had affairs with him.
While stark partisan differences remain, only 51 percent of Republicans actually oppose the probe into possible collusion with Russia, while 43 percent support it. Larger percentages of Republicans oppose investigating Trump’s businesses and hush money paid to women accusers, but even there, 34 percent approve probing Trump’s businesses and just under 30 percent of Republicans support investigating hush money. Independents overwhelmingly support investigating Russian collusion (70 percent), Trump’s businesses (65 percent) and hush money (59 percent).
In short, Comey’s book and public attitudes about Comey (32 percent have an unfavorable opinion, 30 percent favorable) are largely irrelevant. What matters — and has always mattered — is Mueller’s fact-finding, his integrity and his legal ammunition. It’s understandable that Trump dreams of firing the special counsel. Mueller remains the most powerful nemesis Trump has ever faced, one immune to Trump’s antics. And it is Mueller — not Fox News conspiracy theorists, Nunes or Bannon — who will determine Trump’s legal and political future.