There are two steps involved in President Trump’s defense of the allegations leveled against him by former FBI director James B. Comey. The first is to make the question a he-said, he-said contest between the two men. The second is to make himself seem more believable.
If that seems familiar, it should. It was precisely the strategy Trump and his team used during the 2016 campaign, fighting hard against Hillary Clinton until she was viewed as unfavorably as him and then squeaking past her in just enough places to win the presidency.
Here’s how this works in the case of Comey.
During a news conference Friday with the president of Romania, the Washington Times’ Dave Boyer asked Trump how the president was “vindicated” by Comey’s testimony — as he claimed on Twitter Friday morning — given that Comey’s testimony boiled down to “his word against your word.”
In broad strokes, that distillation by Boyer is accurate. Comey says that Trump tried to persuade him to drop the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn; Trump says that he didn’t. But Comey also claims to have contemporaneous notes documenting the conversation, which he has provided to special counsel Robert Mueller — notes that shift the balance in Comey’s favor. Trump, of course, has hinted that he has recordings of his conversations with Comey — but refuses to confirm whether such recordings exist. (On Friday, he said he would let the world know “in a short period of time” if they do.)
Trump’s answer to Boyer’s question happily accepted the he-said, he-said premise.
“No collusion. No obstruction. He’s a leaker,” the president said in his response, tersely summarizing what he felt was learned during Comey’s testimony. Trump then again claimed that the Russia investigation was just an effort to distract from the Democrats’ electoral college loss last year, though the investigation itself began back in July 2016.
“James Comey confirmed a lot of what I said, and a lot of the things that he said just weren’t true,” Trump continued.
That’s a significant statement for Trump to make, given that Comey was testifying under oath. If Comey said untrue things under oath — and knew that they were untrue — that’s perjury. Trump is accusing Comey of a crime.
But that comment also reinforces another way in which this isn’t just a he-said, he-said. Comey was testifying under oath, something that wasn’t true of either Trump or his attorney (who released an error-riddled statement about Comey’s testimony).
ABC’s Jonathan Karl asked at the news conference if Trump would be willing to testify under oath about what happened with Comey.
“He said those things under oath,” Karl said. “Would you be willing to speak under oath to give your version of those events?”
“100 percent,” Trump said. (The full response was a little muddled, as you can see above, but this point was unequivocal.)
Would he be willing to talk to Mueller, Karl continued, a conversation that would probably require sworn testimony? “I would be glad to tell him exactly what I just told you,” Trump replied.
The importance of Trump’s unwavering assertion that he would tell the special counsel the same thing under oath is important. Again, Trump’s goal is to force people to choose who they trust, him or Comey. For those who might be swayed by Comey’s under-oath testimony, here’s an out: Hey, Trump would be willing to swear under oath, too!
But there is a very, very big difference between saying you’d be happy to testify under oath and actually testifying under oath, the same difference as saying you’ll give most of your income to charity and actually doing it — something else Trump knows about.
Trump knows very well that sworn testimony is a whole different ballgame. Last year, The Post documented a deposition in which Trump was forced to admit to 30 distinct falsehoods he’d made when not under oath. Perhaps Trump will subject himself to the same scrutiny with Mueller, who knows. But until he does, it’s premature to give him the benefit of the doubt on honesty.
(An aside: The last president to be impeached, Bill Clinton, was tripped up by testimony he gave in a sworn deposition.)
Even if it were a he-said, he-said contest with Comey, Trump has far more reasons to be dishonest than does Comey. Trump’s presidency is at stake, and if there is a pattern of obstruction of justice in his behavior — the sort of thing that Comey’s testimony could reinforce — the repercussions could be severe. Trump would have Americans believe that Comey is the one lying, motivated by … Anger? Revenge? It’s not clear.
Trump can lie with literal impunity at this point and has a motive to do so. Comey faces legal repercussions for lying — and it’s not really clear why he would.
One key reason Trump won the presidency is, again, why he’s faring as well as he is when positioned against Comey: partisanship. A Post-ABC poll this week found that more than half the country distrusted Comey, a figure powered by strong skepticism from Republicans. Trump’s presidency has been all about playing to his base so far, and his base, in this instance, is returning the favor.
It’s possible that Trump is telling the truth, that the conversation didn’t go as Comey presented. We should remember, though, that Trump hasn’t earned the benefit of that doubt. In the first 137 days of his presidency, our fact-checkers caught him saying 623 false or misleading things.
Even in the story of the boy who cried wolf, most of the time the boy was lying.