FORMER FBI director James B. Comey, testifying under oath Thursday to the Senate Intelligence Committee, painted a picture of a president grossly abusing his executive authority. According to Mr. Comey, President Trump pressured him to declare his loyalty, pressured him to drop an investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and then fired him in an effort to alter the course of the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion by the Trump campaign. However Mr. Trump and his allies may spin the testimony, these are serious and disturbing allegations. Also disturbing is the revelation that Mr. Trump showed little concern about the underlying offense — Russia’s efforts to subvert American democracy.
Disappointingly, Republican senators at the hearing for the most part tried to play the part of Trump defense lawyers, challenging or playing down Mr. Comey’s testimony. Their efforts for the most part boomeranged. Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), for example, implied that Mr. Trump’s pressure regarding the Flynn investigation was no big deal because he did not issue a flat command. “He did not order you to let it go,” Mr. Risch said. “He said, ‘I hope.’ ” Mr. Comey responded with a brief lesson on the power of the presidency. “I took it as a direction,” Mr. Comey said. He added that it was “very significant” that the president asked everyone else to leave the room before expressing his “hope,” saying that an investigator would note what this indicated about the president’s intent.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) minimized Mr. Flynn’s misdeeds, arguing it is unlikely he would be charged with breaking the Logan Act. Mr. Comey pointed out that Mr. Flynn may have lied to government investigators — as well as to the vice president, exposing himself to Russian blackmail — which would be no small lapse.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) suggested that firing Mr. Comey was probably not a good way to end the Russia inquiry, implying that the president could not have meant to obstruct the probe. Yet throughout, Mr. Comey cited the president’s statement that he had the Russia matter on his mind when he fired Mr. Comey. The ousted FBI director explicitly drew the conclusion the facts suggest: “I was fired in some way to change, or the endeavor was to change, the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.”
Overall, the Republican effort to minimize the president’s transgressions served only to make those senators look small. Mr. Comey, a man of integrity, explained over the course of his testimony that the president’s requests breached a barrier that must be maintained between the president and the FBI, “shocked” career law enforcement officials and were unprecedented in his long experience. He described the president as a man law enforcement could not trust, an unusually irresponsible politician who he feared would “lie” to the public and who dishonestly defamed the FBI. That, he said, is why he kept such careful notes of his meetings with the president.
Finally, Mr. Comey reminded senators that no one, least of all the president, should be uninterested in investigating and responding to the Russians’ hostile activities. “It’s not a Republican thing or a Democratic thing. It really is an American thing,” Mr. Comey said. “They’re just about their own advantage. They will be back.”
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