The opening statement former FBI Director James Comey will read at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday morning is on its face a dramatic retelling of the events that precipitated his firing in May. But it is perhaps more critically a depiction of a multi-pronged national crisis.
One prong of that crisis concerns the character of the president: Comey, in so many words, has confirmed that Donald Trump is loyalty-obsessed, corrupt in his dealings, and lacking in any sense of what constitutes appropriate checks on the power of the president.
A second prong concerns the president’s actions: Trump administration loyalists are taking solace in and spinning the narrow factual point that Comey did in fact assure Trump three times that he was not under FBI investigation. They ignore the largest thematic point that Comey’s story is one of a president slowly, steadily, incriminating himself. If he was not under investigation before he fired Comey, it is imperative that he be so now.
The final prong concerns the fact that the broader government is in control of people intent on enabling Trump, complicit in his wrongdoing. This final prong is the one Comey depicts most indirectly, but it is perhaps the most important. The president and his confidants are engaging in grave wrongdoing, and Republicans are denying the public the political means to stop it.
The story, according to Comey’s opening statement, begins famously and in earnest with a one-on-one dinner Trump hosted for Comey at the White House on January 27. We now know, thanks to Comey’s testimony, that Trump placed the invitation just hours before the two men dined—one day after Acting Attorney General Sally Yates first warned White House counsel Don McGahn that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was compromised with Russian intelligence.
At the dinner, Trump aggressively sought Comey’s loyalty, dangling the impermanence of Comey’s job as an enticement for the FBI director to enter “some sort of patronage relationship” (Comey’s words) and ultimately settling on the understanding that Comey would provide him “honest loyalty” (Trump’s words).
In future discussions, Trump behaved as if he’d conscripted Comey into his direct service. On February 14, he cleared the Oval Office of senior aides and agency heads, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to ask Comey in private to end his investigation of Flynn, who had just resigned. On March 30, Trump phoned Comey to ask him to “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation and publicize the fact that Trump, personally, wasn’t under investigation.
Less than two weeks later, he phoned Comey again for an update: Why hadn’t he told the world that Trump wasn’t under investigation? Never mind that Comey’s privately held reasons included the fact that telling the public “we did not have an open case on President Trump … would create a duty to correct, should that change.” The reason Trump was growing impatient was that he felt his loyalty to Comey wasn’t being reciprocated. “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know,” Trump said.
The president can’t be trusted not to co-opt, or attempt to co-opt, the leaders of our security and intelligence services, many of whom are his appointees.
Trump’s conduct with the FBI director wasn’t just autocratic. It was also increasingly obstructive, and might have trespassed into criminal territory even if Trump had not then fired Comey for refusing to do as asked, lied about his rationale, bragged to Russians that the firing Comey had “taken off” the pressure of the Russia investigation, then threatened to release secretly recorded tapes to intimidate Comey out of providing this very testimony.
After seeking his patronage, Trump asked Comey to end the Flynn investigation, and to remove the “cloud” of the Russia investigation. As a legal matter, obstruction of justice requires an element of “corrupt intent” on the part of the obstructer. That intent became plain after the firing, but even in the moment, it was easily inferred. Trump, again, cleared the Oval Office, suggesting he was aware his request was improper, and later communicated his belief that Comey’s unwillingness to lift the “cloud” of the Russia investigation reflected unreciprocated loyalty.
Just within the four corners of this prepared testimony, Trump’s pattern of behavior looks like obstruction of justice.
In a bygone era, we might expect Trump’s appointees to defect from the administration. In a less polarized time, the president might be forced to resign or face impeachment and removal by the Congress.
In the current environment, we can expect nothing of the sort. Though Sessions did reportedly offer to resign, it was not because of the president’s legal or ethical conduct, but because the president was angry that the attorney general recused himself, and can thus not participate overtly in the cover-up.
When Comey, according to his statement, implored Sessions “to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me,” and told him that leaving the two alone “was inappropriate and should never happen,” Sessions “did not reply.”
After the March 30 phone call, Comey phoned then-Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente “to report the substance of the call from the President, and … await his guidance.” Comey did not hear back.
Trump’s loyalists, including his personal lawyer, are ignoring all of this, choosing instead to celebrate that as of March 30, Trump wasn’t under investigation.
If past is prologue, House Speaker Paul Ryan will read Comey’s opening statement, watch Thursday’s hearing, and reconcile himself to ignoring the crisis the testimony depicts—a dangerous, lawless president whose crimes erode his already meager capacity to do the job.
But it is a crisis. March 30 was more than two months ago. Trump wasn’t the subject of an investigation then, but there is no justification for that now. The people isolating one narrow detail to the exclusion of the dire portrait Comey painted are, in the most dishonorable way, prioritizing raw power over the interests and security of the nation.