Faced with James Comey’s testimony, President Trump and his defenders beckon us down a constitutional and moral rabbit hole. His pleas on behalf of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, they tell us, were the vague wishes of a legal naif. The FBI investigation of Trump and Russia is, they say, a witch hunt designed to politicize the law, an assault on his civil liberties.
This is pernicious — and dangerous. The legal system does not unfairly threaten Trump; Trump threatens the rule of law as surely as did Richard Nixon. One cannot vindicate the presumption of innocence by shutting down an inquiry which addresses whether an American president violated his oath to uphold the Constitution by committing criminal acts.
This is not the case of an unconstrained federal government targeting a private citizen or lower officeholder. Trump is the world’s most powerful man; he can direct — or misdirect — the affairs of our country, then use the unique and awesome powers of his office to immunize his actions. The FBI investigation is all that stands between the rule of law and a president seemingly bereft of any belief that his responsibilities transcend himself. To suggest that it be foreshortened abets the blockade of truth which, based on what we know already, he apparently means to perpetrate.
The questions before us are profound:
Did Trump or his campaign barter the power of the presidency in foreign affairs in exchange for Russian help in attaining that power?
Did Trump or his campaign know about Russia’s efforts to influence the election by using e-mails illegally stolen from the DNC and Clinton campaign?
Did Trump or his associates receive Russia’s help in advancing their business interests?
Did Trump, as president, attempt to obstruct an inquiry which would resolve these questions?
As to the first three questions, all we know is that 17 intelligence agencies agree that Russia tampered in our election, and that the FBI is investigating possible collusion by Trump and/or his campaign. But with respect to obstruction of justice, Comey’s testimony — when juxtaposed with Trump’s known conduct — suggests that the president systematically attempted to deny us answers.
At best, the timeline is deeply disturbing:
On Jan. 26, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed Trump that Flynn — his national security adviser, a man close to Vladimir Putin, a Trump confidante who had numerous conversations with Russian officials throughout the campaign — had lied to the FBI about discussing sanctions relief with the Russian ambassador. Trump told no one.
On Jan. 27, Trump invited FBI director Comey to dinner alone. There he asked Comey whether he wanted to stay on as FBI director — though Comey had already told him that he did. Moments later Trump admonished him, “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.”
For three weeks, Trump concealed, from his advisers and the public, what Yates had told him. Only on Feb. 14, when The Washington Post reported Yates’s warning, did Trump fire Flynn.
That same day, Trump ended a meeting that included the vice president, several intelligence officials, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — Comey’s superior — by saying that he wished to speak with Comey alone. When Sessions lingered, Trump asked him to leave. He then told Comey that he hoped the FBI director would “see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” When Comey later requested that Sessions prevent any further such communications, Sessions did not respond.
On March 20, Comey informed Congress that the FBI was investigating possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
On March 22, The Washington Post reported that Trump had contacted the director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, and NSA director Mike Rogers, urging them to push back against the FBI investigation by publicly denying that there was any evidence of collusion.
Concurrently, the Post later reported, Trump concluded a briefing by asking everyone to leave the room except for Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. He then requested that Coats ask Comey to drop his investigation of Flynn. While neither Coats or Rogers honored these requests, thus far they have declined to describe them to Congress.
On March 30, Trump called Comey to complain that the Russia investigation was impairing his presidency, and asked if Comey could “lift the cloud.” He further complained about the congressional hearing, and asked Comey to publicly state what he had told Trump in private — that, as of that time, Trump was not personally under investigation.
On April 11, the president again called Comey to ask what he had done to fulfill his request. Comey suggested that Trump take the matter to his superiors.
On May 9, Trump summarily fired Comey. Initially, he claimed to have acted because Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein recommended in a memo that he terminate Comey for mishandling the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.
It swiftly emerged that Trump had solicited Rosenstein’s memo as a pretext. Trump then acknowledged to NBC’s Lester Holt that he decided to fire Comey before receiving the memo, citing the FBI’s Russia investigation. A leaked transcript further revealed that Trump had told Russian officials that he had fired Comey to relieve the pressure on his relationship to Russia.
At the least, Trump’s conduct mandates further investigation, not only of obstruction, but also of the underlying imperative: uncovering whether Trump or his associates colluded with Russia in exchange for electoral or financial advantage — which, if proven, is akin to treason.
Faced with this reality, Trump’s apologists argue that an FBI investigation of potentially illegal presidential conduct is not a “proceeding” subject to federal obstruction-of-justice statutes. This is contrary to reason, the bulk of case law, and any fair interpretation of a statute governing anyone who “influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede the due administration of justice.” In any event, that is a legal question for the courts, not a pretext for absolving Trump before the fact.
Special counsel Robert Mueller must proceed to do his job.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.