It’s easy to get lost in the technical thickets of former FBI Director James Comey’s Senate testimony on Thursday. Did President Donald Trump really obstruct justice, as many Democrats argue, or was he simply a neophyte politician with a ham-fisted approach to management who didn’t understand that law enforcement is supposed to be independent? This question only raises further questions about what constitutes obstruction, whether there has to be an underlying crime, and whether Trump’s state of mind is relevant in rendering judgment.
These are all issues for lawyers and judges to dispute, but if you get lost in the forest you’ll miss the bigger picture: Comey, a highly respected government official with a distinguished legal career, painted a damning portrait of a president who lacks the necessary character to execute the office he holds.
Comey had several notable interactions with Trump after the 2016 election and took meticulous notes about them. The profile of Trump that emerges is of an arrogant, obsessive, dishonest, and self-centered man. Consider why Comey kept notes in the first place, as he explained to Virginia Senator Mark Warner:
WARNER: What was about that meeting that led you to determine that you needed to start putting down a written record?
COMEY: A combination of things. I think the circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with. Circumstances, first, I was alone with the president of the United States, or the president-elect, soon to be president. The subject matter I was talking about, matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility, and that relate to the president, president-elect personally, and then the nature of the person. I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document. That combination of things I had never experienced before, but had led me to believe I got to write it down and write it down in a very detailed way.
According to Comey, these concerns about the “nature of the person” were vindicated after Trump fired him a month ago. “Although the law required no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader,” Comey testified. “Those were lies, plain and simple. And I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them, and I’m so sorry that the American people were told them.” The “nature of the person” is particular to Trump, as Comey, who also served under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, made clear:
[A]s FBI director I interacted with President Obama, I spoke only twice in three years, and didn’t document it. When I was Deputy Attorney General I had a one one-on-one with President Bush about a national security matter. I didn’t document that conversation either. I didn’t feel with President Bush the need to document it in that way. Because of the combination of those factors, just wasn’t present with either President Bush or President Obama.
Comey’s testimony gives us a sense of what having such a prevaricator as president means for public servants just trying to do their job. For Comey, Trump’s very “nature” made it necessary to take precautions that aren’t necessary when dealing with an honest or honorable person.
Trump’s rotten character is also apparent in his handling of the Russia investigation. As Comey made clear, the law enforcement and intelligence communities have concluded that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election, and that it was a grave attack on U.S. sovereignty:
The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. It was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government. There is no fuzz on that. It is a high confidence judgment of the entire intelligence community and the members of this committee have seen the intelligence. It’s not a close call. That happened. That’s about as unfake as you can possibly get. It is very, very serious, which is why it’s so refreshing to see a bipartisan focus on that. This is about America, not about a particular party.
But Comey also made clear that Trump, for the most part, cares about Russian interference in the election only to the extent that it impacts him. As Comey detailed in written testimony released on Wednesday:
He described the Russia investigation as “a cloud” that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to “lift the cloud.” I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him.
In Comey’s account of their January 27 dinner together, the president comes across like an overbearing boss trying to coerce an employee into doing something unethical, or like a mobster trying to intimidate a shopkeeper:
Near the end of our dinner, the President returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, “I need loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me.” He paused and then said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get that from me.” As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term — honest loyalty — had helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect.
Comey’s testimony reveals Trump as a deceitful, ignorant, and incompetent bully. But it also showed how deeply self-centered the president is. Everything is about him—how the Russia investigation is causing him problems—and not the nation. This will not change with experience and instruction. It’s the core of his being. That’s why, as the drips of this investigation become a deluge, other scandals may well surface. Trump’s very essence is at odds with the duty, responsibility, and purpose of the presidency. But many of us knew this already. The most damning thing about Comey’s testimony is that he confirmed it in front of the entire country.