The first important part of James Comey’s testimony was that he cast some doubt on reports that there was widespread communication between the Russians and the Trump campaign. That was the suspicion that set off this whole chain of events and the possibility that could have quickly brought about impeachment proceedings.
The second important implication of the hearings is that as far as we know, Donald Trump has not performed any criminal act that would merit removing him from office.
Sure, he cleared the room so he could lean on Comey to go easy on Michael Flynn. But he didn’t order Comey to shut down the investigation as a whole or do any of the things (like following up on the request) that would constitute real obstruction.
And sure, Trump did later fire Comey. But it’s likely that the Comey firing had little or nothing to do with the Flynn investigation.
Trump was, as always, thinking about himself. Comey had told Trump three times that he was not under investigation. Trump wanted Comey to repeat that fact publicly. When Comey didn’t, Trump took it as a sign that Comey was disloyal, an unforgivable sin. So he fired him, believing, insanely, that the move would be popular.
All of this would constitute a significant scandal in a normal administration, but it would not be grounds for impeachment.
The third important lesson of the hearing is that Trump is characterologically at war with the norms and practices of good government. Comey emerged as a superb institutionalist, a man who believes we are a nation of laws. Trump emerged as a tribalist and a clannist, who simply cannot understand the way modern government works.
Trump is also plagued with a self-destructive form of selfishness. He is consumed by a hunger for affirmation, but, demented by his own obsessions, he can’t think more than one step ahead.
In search of praise he is continually doing things that will end up bringing him condemnation. He lies to people who have the power to publicly devastate him. He betrays people who have the power to damage him. Trump is most dangerous to the people who are closest to him and are in the best position to take their revenge.
The upshot is the Trump administration will probably not be brought down by outside forces. It will be incapacitated from within, by the bile, rage and back-stabbing that are at record levels in the White House staff, by the dueling betrayals of the intimates Trump abuses so wretchedly.
Although there may be no serious collusion with the Russians, there is now certain to be a wide-ranging independent investigation into all things Trump.
These investigations will take a White House that is already acidic and turn it sulfuric. James Hohmann and Joanie Greve had a superb piece in the Daily 202 section of The Washington Post. They compiled the lessons people in the Clinton administration learned from the Whitewater scandal and applied them to the Trump White House.
If past is prologue, this investigation will drag on for a while. The Clinton people thought the Whitewater investigation might last six months, but the inquiries lasted more than seven years. The Trump investigation will lead in directions nobody can now anticipate. When the Whitewater investigation started, Monica Lewinsky was an unknown college student, and nobody had any clue that an investigation into an Arkansas land deal would turn into an investigation about sex.
This investigation will ruin careers far and wide. Investigators go after anybody they think can yield information on the president. Before the Whitewater investigators got to Clinton they took down Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, Webb Hubbell, Susan and Jim McDougal, and many others.
This investigation will swallow up day-to-day life. As Clinton alum Jennifer Palmieri wrote in an op-ed in the USA Today network of newspapers: “No one in a position of authority at the White House tells you what is happening. No one knows. Your closest colleague could be under investigation and you would not know. You could be under investigation and not know. It can be impossible to stay focused on your job.”
Everybody will be affected. Betty Currie, Bill Clinton’s personal secretary, finally refused to mention the names of young White House employees to the investigators because every time she mentioned a name, the kid would get a subpoena, which meant thousands of dollars of ruinous legal fees.
If anything, the Trump investigation will probably be more devastating than the Whitewater scandals. The Clinton team was a few shady characters surrounded by a large group of super-competent straight arrows. The Trump administration is shady characters through and through. Clinton himself was a savvy operator. Trump is a rage-prone obsessive who will be consumed by this.
The good news is the civic institutions are weathering the storm. The Senate Intelligence Committee put on a very good hearing. The FBI is maintaining its integrity. This has, by and large, been a golden age for the U.S. press corps. The bad news is that these institutions had better be. The Trump death march will be slow, grinding and ugly.