WASHINGTON – What do you do if you’ve just been fired as director of the FBI, the administration has chosen to “defame” you with “lies plain and simple,” and you believe the president of the United States may be trying to obstruct justice? You leak bombshell information to the media in hopes of forcing the appointment of a special counsel. It might work.
Actually, it did work.
In stunning public testimony Thursday, James Comey acknowledged arranging for a friend to leak details of a conversation Comey had with President Trump – the Feb. 14 Oval Office encounter in which Trump said he hoped the FBI director could “drop” the bureau’s investigation of fired national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to Comey’s contemporaneous notes. “I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel,” Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee about his orchestrated leak.
“I don’t think it’s for me to say” whether Trump committed obstruction, Comey demurred, “but that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work toward, to try and understand what the intention was there and whether that’s an offense.” Comey said he took Trump’s words not as just a “hope” but as a “direction” from the highest official in the land – an order he was not about to obey.
Three months later, with no warning, Comey was summarily dismissed. “It’s my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” Comey testified. “That is a very big deal.”
Comey was unabashed about accusing Trump and his administration of telling “lies,” and said he began the practice of immediately making notes after talking with the president because “I was honestly concerned that he might lie” about the conversations. He said he had no such concern about the veracity of the other two presidents he served, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
On one subject, Comey confirmed that the president is being truthful: Comey did tell him three times that he was not personally under investigation. Comey explained that this was “technically” the case during his FBI tenure. He said he does not know, however, whether special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating Trump now – and left little doubt that he hopes Mueller is doing just that.
Comey’s best line of the day was a belated response to a May 12 tweet from the president, which warned that “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Said Comey: “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
I hope so, too, but I would be surprised if such recordings exist. Trump’s inner circle is such a sieve that full transcripts surely would have leaked by now. Investigators and the public will have to decide whether they believe Trump, who lies all the time, or Comey, who has a flair for the dramatic but also the bearing of an oversized Boy Scout. That’s a pretty easy choice.
And now for some rare kind words about members of Congress: Overall, the senators questioning Comey behaved in a manner that could be described by such last-century terms as “bipartisan” and “patriotic.” The Democrats’ questions tended to be somewhat more accusatory toward the president, the Republicans’ questions somewhat more exculpatory, but there was a welcome air of sobriety about the whole thing. At this point, any examples of grown-up behavior should be recognized and praised.
The one exception was the weird line of questioning pursued by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who wanted to know why Comey wouldn’t publicly clear Trump of wrongdoing even though he had done so for Hillary Clinton. Comey tried to explain that the investigation of Clinton’s emails was finished whereas the investigation of Trump’s campaign is ongoing. “Maybe going forward I shouldn’t stay up late watching the Diamondbacks night games,” McCain later said.
As perhaps should have been expected, the most important takeaway from Comey’s testimony may be what he didn’t say. Topics he scrupulously avoided may give a hint of where the investigation is headed.
He declined, for example, to answer a question about Vnesheconombank (VEB), a Russian government-owned development bank linked to President Vladimir Putin. Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met last year with VEB executives.
Comey was also reticent about his interactions with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was his boss – and who had to recuse himself from Russia-related investigations.
Comey’s memos about his meetings with Trump are now in Mueller’s hands. Trump desperately wanted the Russia investigation to end. Firing Comey ensured that it is only beginning.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.