There was not much the public did not already know in the Comey memos that leaked to the media Thursday. The contents of the documents, in which then-FBI Director James B. Comey contemporaneously kept track of his interactions with President Trump over the course of 2017, had already been mostly disclosed. But there are two elements that nevertheless stood out, adding detail to the picture of a president dismissive of democratic norms and distracted by his obsessions.
First is Mr. Trump’s private expressions of contempt for press freedom. According to a Feb. 14, 2017, memo, the president said Mr. Comey should jail journalists to compel them to identify government leakers, as Justice Department officials did in 2005 with New York Times reporter Judith Miller. When the FBI director said that such a plan would face legal barriers as well as reticence at the Justice Department, the president ordered Mr. Comey to talk to the attorney general about “being more aggressive,” saying, “They spend a couple days in jail, make a new friend, and they are ready to talk,” according to the memo. In response to this disgusting statement, Mr. Comey writes he laughed and exited the room.
Mr. Trump would not be the first president to bemoan leaks, but a president repeatedly suggesting the imprisonment of journalists should be unfathomable in a country committed to freedom of expression. It rings all the more threatening in the context of Mr. Trump’s historic hostility toward the media, which includes calling to “loosen” up libel laws , encouraging crowds at his campaign rallies to turn and jeer at the peaceful press corps behind them, and transforming the term “fake news” into a phrase now used by dictators across the world to dismiss truthful reporting they do not like. Meanwhile, his vulgar reference to making “a new friend” in prison trivializes the dehumanizing torture of prison rape that too many inmates continue to suffer. These comments deserved not a laugh from Mr. Comey, but the cold silence he reported giving to many of Mr. Trump’s other disturbing remarks.
What also comes through clearly in the Comey memos is the president’s intense preoccupation with allegations that he interacted with Russian prostitutes during a 2013 trip to Moscow. Mr. Comey recorded that Mr. Trump raised the story in multiple meetings, asking the FBI director to investigate and rebut the allegation, a mission from which Mr. Comey demurred. The fact that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election or the threat that the Kremlin may be trying to influence the president and his circle got no such attention, at least if Mr. Comey’s account is remotely representative of the president’s behavior. Protecting himself, not preserving national security, appears to be Mr. Trump’s overriding goal.
For his part, the president has said that Mr. Comey is a liar but also that Mr. Comey’s memos exonerate him. The claim is as credible as it is logical.
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