No smoking gun, but James Comey shows he’s a straight shooter
James Comey brought no smoking gun to his high-stakes appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee. But the former FBI director produced something more important: the image of a straight shooter — straight because he struggled to do the right thing and is honest enough to admit that sometimes he fell short of the mark.
President Trump will try to make the story of Thursday’s testimony revolve around Comey’s admission that, through a friend, he leaked a memo from a meeting with Trump to trigger the appointment of a special counsel. Trump sycophants will beat up Comey over the question of why he didn’t resign if he were as upset about his interactions with the president as he contends. They will stress that Comey repeatedly told Trump he was not being personally investigated by the FBI. And of course, they will try to shift attention back to Hillary Clinton, her private e-mail server, and the request by then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch that Comey call the FBI’s investigation a “matter,” not an investigation.
Those are distractions from the real meaning of Comey’s remarkable testimony. What should really matter to the country is Comey’s absolute belief that Russia “interfered with our election process” and his description of why having a foreign country try to shape the way we think, vote, and act is “a big deal.” As Comey explained, “We remain this shining city on a hill, and they don’t like it.”
Rather than focusing on one leaked memo, Comey said Americans should care much more deeply about his rationale for creating memos of his meetings and phone conversations with Trump. The subject matter was sensitive, since it involved an ongoing FBI investigation into Russian interference with the US election. The circumstances involving his dealings with Trump were troubling, since Trump was clearly trying to influence FBI investigations. But what Comey really feared was that Trump “might lie about the nature of our meeting.” To have the former head of the FBI say that publicly about the president of the United States is pretty chilling.
Comey laid out the meetings with Trump in a statement released the day before the hearing. On Jan. 6, Comey said, he briefed then President-elect Trump on what he called “salacious and unverified” material relating personally to Trump in connection with the Russia investigation. There was a Jan. 27 dinner, during which he said Trump told Comey, “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.” Then, there was the Feb. 14 Oval Office meeting that occurred after Trump told everyone else to leave. That’s when Trump brought up the topic of Mike Flynn, his just-fired national security adviser, and told Comey, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”
Republicans are already hanging onto Trump’s use of the word “hope” as evidence that Trump wasn’t directing Comey in a way that could lead to an obstruction-of-justice charge. But if you are in a private meeting with a big boss who tells you “I hope” you do something , most people — including an FBI director — will interpret that as an order.
So, as Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat from California, put it to Comey: Why didn’t he simply say, “Mr. President, this is wrong”? Responded Comey: “Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. . . . Maybe other people would be stronger in those circumstances.”
Comey said he was stunned by the conversation. But the truth is he also wanted to keep his job, and the power that goes with it, and believed that by not challenging Trump directly he could do that and keep the Russia investigation going. Trump had other ideas.
There’s no smoking gun — yet — that links Trump directly to Russia’s interference with the 2016 election, or to outright obstruction of justice in trying to derail the FBI investigation. But in Comey there’s a straight shooter, whose target is Trump.
He’s flawed, but through acknowledgment of his flaws, his aim is true. It reveals the frightening moral weakness of the president who fired him.