At some point, the continued investigations into Donald Trump’s White House become an excuse to avoid dealing with what Congress and the American public already know.
After former FBI director James Comey’s testimony on Thursday, that day may have arrived. Investigations have their place — but so does action.
President Trump tried to thwart the FBI’s probe into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, as Comey’s sworn testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee made painfully clear. There’s still a lot for Congress and special counsel Robert Mueller to learn about the broader problem of Russian interference with the election and potential collusion with the Trump campaign, an inquiry that could take years. But the separate question of presidential obstruction of justice in the Flynn case is starting to look cut-and-dried.
According to Comey’s sworn testimony — which is backed up by his contemporaneous notes — the president told him he wanted the investigation into whether Flynn lied to the FBI dropped. He made that statement to Comey in the context of a discussion about whether he would continue to lead the agency. After Comey failed to drop the Flynn investigation or publicly exonerate Trump, the president fired him. Trump then incriminated himself in an NBC interview, explaining that the “Russia thing” was on his mind when he fired Comey.
Some of Trump’s defenders were clinging Thursday to the president’s choice of words in his discussion with Comey — in which he said, “I hope you can let this go” — to downplay its signficance, on the grounds that a hope wasn’t the same as an order.
The fact that Trump’s abuse of presidential power didn’t take much time and effort to uncover — and that Trump himself has appeared to confirm parts of the story — seems to have thrown even some of the president’s critics off guard. Washington operates under a set of assumptions, including that it takes laborious investigations to uncover wrongdoing, and that politicians will try to conceal their misdeeds. As if on autopilot, Democrats were demanding new investigations on Thursday.
But at least as it relates to Comey’s firing, there’s not much more to investigate. Trump has denied Comey’s account, but his statements lack any credibility. The question Democrats and Republicans need to be asking now is what to do about the actions Comey has exposed. It’s unclear whether a sitting president can be indicted, and a lively debate has broken out among legal scholars over whether his actions would qualify for normal obstruction-of-justice charges.
But in the case of presidents, Congress determines when the line has been crossed, and enforces it through impeachment. It’s hard to imagine what other information Congress would need to start hearings on whether its ultimate sanction is warranted now.