Anybody hoping that former FBI director James B. Comey would accuse President Trump of obstruction of justice on Thursday didn't get precisely what they wanted.
“It's my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation — I was fired in some way to change, or the endeavor was to change, the way the Russia investigation was being conducted,” Comey said. “That is a very big deal.”
Comey added, thickly: “The nature of the FBI and the nature of its work requires that it not be the subject of political consideration.”
Earlier in the hearing, Comey said that Trump's request to drop the Michael Flynn investigation wasn't a clear order, but he did say the he viewed it as a “directive” — basically an implied order.
“When a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like ‘I hope’ or ‘I suggest’ or ‘Would you?’ do you take that as a directive?” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) asked him.
Comey responded: “Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ ”
Comey also suggested strongly that Trump cleared the Oval Office before the Flynn discussion for a very “significant reason” — suggesting he knew the conversation was unsavory and he didn't want witnesses.
“Why did he kick everybody out of the Oval Office?” Comey said. “That to me, as an investigator, is a very significant fact.”
And in a memorable exchange with Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), Risch sought to nail down Comey on just how much of a “directive” he thought it was. Risch pointed to Comey saying in a written statement Wednesday that Trump had told him that he “hoped” Comey could let go of the Flynn probe. Risch suggested that wouldn't constitute a crime since it was only an aspiration and not a request.
But Comey made clear he believes the president was directing him to do something, even if he didn't say it so plainly. Here's the exchange:
RISCH: He did not direct you to let it go?COMEY: Not in his words, no.RISCH: He did not order you to let it go?COMEY: Again, those words are not an order.RISCH: No; he said ‘I hope.’ ... Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice — or for that matter, any other criminal offense — where they said or thought they hoped for an outcome?COMEY: I don't know well enough to answer. And the reason I keep saying 'his words' is, I took it as a direction. I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying 'I hope this.' I took it as this is what he wants me to do. I didn't obey that, but that's the way I took it.
The scene in Washington during former FBI director James B. Comey’s testimony
Throughout these comments, Comey seemed to punctuate the parts that he believed bled into the idea of obstruction of justice. “That is a very big deal.” “A very significant fact.” “I took it as direction.” In each case, Comey is volunteering that he believes certain facts are key to understanding Trump's true goals, even as he admits he's being somewhat speculative and drawing his own conclusions. When Risch grilled him and was clearly trying to push the idea that “hoping” wasn't a crime, Comey brought it right back to what he believed Trump was really doing.
I spoke a couple weeks ago with a former Obama-era Justice Department spokesman who said he believed Comey might have been building a case against Trump. Whether it was deliberate or not, that appears to have been exactly what Comey was doing.
He laid out that case Thursday without ever directly accusing Trump of a crime. But he might as well have.