WASHINGTON – James Comey’s testimony Thursday made it plain that President Trump grievously wounded his own presidency by abusing his power, misreading both his responsibilities as president and the character of the FBI director he repeatedly pressured.
As a candidate, Trump captivated the Republican base of voters with his calls for a total overthrow of the status quo. But upon arriving in Washington, the president apparently thought the Oval Office conferred power to halt a criminal probe of his campaign’s ties to Russia.
Whether Trump violated federal law, or committed an impeachable offense, is likely to be a focus of the special counsel investigation and congressional committees conducting their own probes. During Thursday’s riveting two-and-a-half-hour hearing, Comey laid out the multiple ways a blundering Trump may have obstructed justice by suggesting the FBI should bend to his will.
From their first encounter before Trump even assumed office, Comey testified under oath, he felt the need to document his conversations because the president “might lie about the nature of our meeting.”
After Trump fired Comey May 9, the president compounded the damage with clumsy attempts to blame Comey’s conduct during the Clinton e-mail probe, even though he already had embraced Comey during the transition, and even though Trump would later acknowledge he dismissed Comey because he was bothered by the Russia investigation.
“The administration chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI, by saying the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led,” Comey told the Senate committee and a national audience glued to TVs across the country. “Those were lies, plain and simple.”
Trump obviously underestimated Comey’s commitment to the FBI and, more importantly, Comey’s political skills from the beginning.
The former FBI director has been widely criticized for publicly clearing Clinton of criminal activity in the e-mail investigation last summer, then reopening the investigation in October, and then clearing her again just days before the election. It was seen as investigative malpractice by many critics, while Comey insisted he had no good options.
The public got a different view Thursday. Comey revealed himself as a canny Washington operator, schooled in both investigative tradecraft (using his laptop to immediately document his conversations with Trump) and the dark art of media leaks and political timing. He admitted that, after his firing, he orchestrated the leak of the content of his memos about his Trump meetings in a bid to create political pressure for appointment of a special counsel. The admission drew immediate criticism (leaker!), but the maneuver worked.
The special counsel investigation that resulted now poses a serious threat to Trump’s presidency.
That Trump did not understand Comey’s loyalties was evident from their first interactions, as Trump tried repeatedly to ingratiate himself to the nation’s chief investigator. Trump values personal loyalty and campaigned on tearing down institutions, while Comey has spent a career based on loyalty to law enforcement and a century-old institution in the FBI.
Trump’s efforts to win Comey over had the opposite effect: Making him deeply suspicious, and causing to take scrupulous notes. To everyone in Washington but Trump, perhaps, it would be clear Comey would put the interests of the FBI’s investigation ahead of the White House.
But couldn’t Comey have defused the whole issue by warning the new president off his requests to drop the investigation? Several senators on the panel pressed Comey strongly on that point.
“That’s a great question,” Comey said. “Maybe if I were stronger I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation I just took it in.”
But Comey also said he deliberately avoided telling other White House officials about the details of Trump’s request to stop the probe into former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn because it was “of investigative interest.”
“I would not have wanted to alert the White House that it had happened until we figured out, what are we going to do with this investigatively?” Comey said.
Underlying Comey’s caution was that, despite his assurances that Trump was not an investigative target, at that moment it was unclear what Trump’s motives were or what Comey would do with the information. And he did not want to tip the White House off to his concerns.
Early on, Comey said that he was concerned about Trump and began documenting all of his meetings in a way that he never felt compelled to do while serving under George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
He said he grew worried about his time alone with the president, and he suggested that others may have been, too. One meeting he recounted was in the Oval Office, where Attorney General Jeff Sessions and top adviser Jared Kushner lingered until Trump asked them to leave.
Once they were alone, Comey said, he asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn -- the recently fired national security adviser, who Comey said at the time was in legal jeopardy.
“Why did he kick everybody out of the Oval Office?” Comey said. “That, to me as an investigator, is a very significant fact.”
Comey’s steady testimony made it all the more difficult for Republicans to defend Trump. Under several lines of questioning by Republicans who tried to downplay the nature of Trump’s request, Comey said Trump did not explicitly “order” or “direct” him to stop his Flynn probe. Comey said in his prepared testimony, released Wednesday, that Trump told him, “I hope you can let this go.”
But given the setting, and the person making the request, Comey told senators Thursday it was clear to him what the president wanted.
“I took it as a direction,” Comey said. “This is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying ‘I hope this.’ I took it as, this is what he wanted me to do. I didn’t obey that, but I took it as what he wanted.”
Comey said that he told Trump several times that he was not personally under investigation — but, under questioning, conceded that his assurance only covered when he was running the FBI, not in the weeks since. It is now widely believed that the special counsel, former FBI director Robert Mueller, will be reviewing Trump’s interactions with Comey that led up to Comey’s firing. Acting FBI director Andrew McCabe confirmed as much Wednesday under questioning by the Senate panel.
“It’s my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” Comey said Thursday, in one of his most damning statements. “I was fired in some way to change -- the endeavor was to change the way the Russia investigation was being conducted. That is a very big deal.”
The hours after Comey’s testimony illustrated just how vigorous the debate will be in the court of public opinion, largely over who is more reliable. Trump’s allies claimed Thursday he is more credible and denied key elements of Comey’s testimony.
“I can definitively say the president is not a liar,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters when asked about Comey testimony. Trump’s personal attorney Marc Kasowitz read a statement denying the president even suggested that Comey drop the Flynn probe. His statement included several typos and factual errors, and Kasowitz did not take any questions after reading his statement.
Some loyal Republicans also tried to lay down a separate defense: that Trump was simply unfamiliar with Washington and the powers of his office.
“The president’s new at this,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters. “He’s new to government, and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI and White Houses.”
But Trump is no naif. He has spent much of his business career filing lawsuits. He has testified himself before Congress. He settled a lawsuit with the Justice Department in the 1970s as part of allegations that he discriminated against tenants based on race.
The hearing also exposed some of the tentacles of the investigation, and where else it might lead. Comey provided a long list of top advisers who could corroborate some aspects of his account. He also encouraged Trump to make good on his threat to release recordings of their conversations.
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.