Donald Trump’s enablers on Capitol Hill are managing the political fallout from James Comey’s explosive congressional testimony last week more adeptly than the president and his criminal defense lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, who don’t see that Trump can’t win a credibility battle with the fired FBI director. But unlike Republicans in Congress, Trump and Kasowitz seem to realize that Trump’s problems aren’t simply political; they are legal as well. Pleading ignorance won’t get him off the hook; lying outright about what transpired in private between himself and Comey might just do the trick.
So Trump is making an ass of himself while congressional Republicans are insulting your intelligence.
The story that Trump and Kasowitz are telling the world is riddled through with contradictions: Comey’s untrustworthy, but his testimony vindicating; Comey is a shady leaker, but his leaks are fake, and therefore defamatory claims, not leaks at all.
But the pair have been remarkably consistent about two points of dispute. “The president never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including suggesting that that Mr. Comey ‘let Flynn go,’” Kasowitz told reporters at the National Press Club on Thursday after Comey’s testimony. “The president also never told Mr. Comey, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty’ in form or substance.”
It is no coincidence that of all the astonishing things Comey said about Trump’s conduct, these two factual claims against Trump speak most straightforwardly to the idea that he obstructed justice. Comey didn’t outright accuse Trump of obstruction, and neither Trump nor Kasowitz explicitly denied that Trump obstructed, but the two parties are shadowboxing around that question. This is why Trump and Kasowitz are so determined to keep the dispute in the realm of “he said, he said.” It’s also probably why Comey is not.
“Thursday [Comey] said, ‘Lordy, I hope there are tapes.’ (That was rather Comey, to pull out the ‘Lordy.’),” wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. “He asked if they exist that they be released.”
The word “Lordy” is very funny, but the significance of that part of Comey’s testimony is in the back half of the sentence. Why does Comey so avidly hope there are tapes? As much as Comey values his reputation for personal integrity, it is likelier that he hopes there are tapes, because recordings would provide a stronger evidentiary basis for obstruction of justice. (Relatedly, it is unsettling that a man possessed of Comey’s knowledge seemingly thinks it’s urgent that the president be in legal jeopardy, or vulnerable to impeachment.)
Republicans in Congress realize that they can’t hold Trump’s integrity up against Comey’s and shrug this dispute off as insoluble. Even if Trump weren’t a known liar, he’d be contending here with a career law enforcement official who took contemporaneous notes, who contemporaneously briefed Department of Justice colleagues, and who, under oath, said that if the conversations were taped, the recordings will vindicate him.
These Republicans are thus retreating to the line, incompatible with Trump’s, that Trump behaved inappropriately, just as Comey said, but that he did so out of naïveté, not corruption. During Comey’s testimony, House Speaker Paul Ryan broke new records in special pleading by telling reporters Trump is “just new at this.”
It would not be politically tenable for Republicans to join Trump in accusing Comey of perjury, and it would likewise not be politically tenable for Republicans to admit Trump obstructed justice, but then impose no consequences. This is the best line available to them and it is extremely condescending to the public.
Trump is surrounded by loyalists with extensive legal and political experience. As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote, “In Comey’s recounting of Trump’s requests of him, Comey also relates his own efforts to explain to Trump why his requests were improper.” (Emphasis his.) Trump campaigned on the view that Bill Clinton’s tarmac encounter with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch a year ago, while the FBI was investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state, was inherently crooked, suggesting he’s perfectly aware of how the rule of law can be subverted. And, to underscore the extent to which Republicans are playing dumb, obstruction of justice isn’t something only presidents can do. Presidents may have more means at their disposal to do it, but it is a crime anyone in the crosshairs of the law can do. Trump has been around a while. He and Ryan know better than to pretend there was nothing improper about his behavior toward Comey.
Taking Comey’s side on the factual question, as Republicans are, is a tacit acknowledgment that Trump is lying about what occurred in his one-on-one encounters with Comey. It is a testament to these Republicans’ own moral corruption that they must choose between conceding that the president they abet is a liar or a criminal—and that choosing the former complicates the president’s efforts to prove he’s not the latter.