What an extraordinary day of testimony from former FBI Director James Comey. It was riveting, jaw-dropping, and completely damning for President Trump. Here are my 10 takeaways:
1. Comey dropped so many bombshells it’s hard to sift through all of them, but the most important and obvious one is that Comey believed that he was fired over the Russia investigation; he believed President Trump’s Oval Office request to stop the investigation of former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn was an order (and thus could represent an effort to obstruct justice); and he immediately characterized this meeting as one of “investigative interest.” The last point suggests that, in the moment, Comey believed the president might have committed a crime.
At this point it’s very difficult to make the case that Trump did not seek to obstruct justice both in the statements he made to Comey and in his decision to fire him.
2. Beginning with their first meeting during the presidential transition, Comey believed the president to be a liar — a point he made directly when, in his opening statement, he accused the White House of making false claims about the reasons why he had been fired. Comey even said that after that first meeting he believed the president would lie about what the two men had discussed. It’s not every day the former head of the FBI brands the president of the United States a liar, but here we are.
3. Comey said that he thought Trump’s decision to ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions and all his other aides to leave the room during an Oval Office meeting was highly suspicious — and that had it happened in a case Comey was investigating he’d consider it hugely significant.
4. The root of the issue with the Russia investigation is its interference in the US presidential election. Yet, according to Comey, at no point in all of the meetings between him and the president did Trump ever ask him a question about Russia’s interference or how to prevent it from happening again. Considering what we know about Trump and his bizarre refusal to acknowledge Russia’s role, this is not all that surprising. It doesn’t make it any less shocking. Trump simply doesn’t care and that’s a major problem.
5. Comey’s answer to a question about whether Trump colluded with the Russian government to interfere with the election is . . . interesting. “It’s a question I don’t think I should answer in an open setting.”
6. The exchange between Senator Ron Wyden and Comey clearly suggests that Trump is not the only person who should be concerned about the special counsel’s investigation of Trump’s Russia connections.
Wyden: “In your statement, you said that you and the FBI leadership team decided not to discuss the president’s actions with Attorney General Sessions even though he had not recused himself. What was it about the attorney general’s own interactions with the Russians or his behavior with regard to the investigation that would have led the entire leadership of the FBI to make this decision?”
Comey: “Our judgment, as I recall, was that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons . . . We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”
That Comey believed Sessions would recuse himself for reasons that cannot be publicly revealed suggests that the attorney general may already be in legal jeopardy.
7. Comey quite forthrightly acknowledged that he’d engineered a leak of the memo recounting his conversation with Trump in the Oval Office. Why he did it is a good reminder that practically every wound the White House has received over Russia is self-inflicted. The leak was in direct response to Trump tweeting out that he had tapes of his Oval Office conversations with Comey.
8. The Republicans’ main line of argument against Comey seemed to be that he should have stood up more aggressively to Trump’s efforts to intimidate him. Such accusations from GOP senators — including Marco Rubio, who said Trump was not fit to be president and yet did nothing to stand up to him during the campaign — are nothing if not rich. But they are also ridiculous.
Let us not forget that Trump was Comey’s boss and thus could fire him if wanted to. Asking Comey to push back on the president, expecting that he would privately chastise him for trying to obstruct justice and would go public with what happened is a bit much, particularly when the real issue should be: Was Trump trying to obstruct justice? That Republicans were more upset with Comey for not putting his foot down than they are with Trump for his conduct tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the modern Republican Party.
9. One thing you can say about James Comey is that he thinks very highly of James Comey. There is an insufferable element to his public demeanor. There was certainly some of that today, but at various points Comey’s mask of probity and self-confidence slipped a bit, and you could practically feel the discomfort that he felt about the president’s behavior. Comey clearly found Trump’s conduct so unusual and so inappropriate that he — and his top aides — appeared to be genuinely unsure of how to respond to it. Comey has done some rather dreadful things in his public life (first and foremost, his conduct of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation and secondly, remaining mum about the investigation of Trump’s Russia connections during the campaign). But it was hard today not to feel a bit sorry for Comey and the fact that Trump put him in such a terrible and untenable position.
10. Finally, Comey’s testimony was historic in that it will move the ball forward in the Russia investigation — even though most of it will be conducted in secret, by the special counsel, behind closed doors. But it was also the first public indication we have that Trump may have broken the law and/or committed an impeachable offense. It’s quite possible that when the history of the Trump presidency is written, today will be seen as the beginning of its end.