In his prepared testimony before Congress, James Comey says he spoke alone with President Barack Obama on just two occasions – once simply for Obama to say a brief goodbye. In contrast, he adds, “I can recall nine one-on-one conversations with President Trump in four months.”
These were profoundly uncomfortable and in some cases “very concerning” and highly irregular, recounts Comey, who was fired as FBI director last month. After one conversation, he says, “I took the opportunity to implore the attorney general to prevent any future direct communication between the president and me.
Trump sought a pledge of personal loyalty so as to turn the head of the FBI into a political lackey. “I need loyalty,” Comey quotes Trump as telling him. “I expect loyalty.”
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“I didn’t move, speak or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed,” Comey adds. “We simply looked at each other in silence.”
Trump’s behavior is reminiscent of what tin-pot despots do. I know, for I’ve covered the overthrow of more than I can count.
So let’s not get mired in legal technicalities. Whether or not it was illegal for Trump to urge Comey to back off his investigation into Russia ties to Mike Flynn, who was fired as national security adviser, it was utterly inappropriate. What comes through is a persistent effort by Trump to interfere with the legal system. There’s a consistent pattern: Trump’s contempt for the system of laws that, incredibly, he now presides over.
All this is of course tied to Russia and its equally extraordinary attack on the American political system last year. The latest revelation is that Russian military intelligence executed a cyberattack on at least one supplier of American voting software and tried to compromise the computers of more than 100 local voting officials.
Comey specifies in his testimony, to be presented Thursday, that he told Trump that there was no personal investigation of him, but that this might change. Comey seems to have an open mind – a good lesson for all of us.
To frame the Comey testimony, consider the staggering comments this week of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence until early this year.
“Watergate pales really, in my view, compared to what we’re confronting now,” said Clapper, a former lieutenant general with a long career in intelligence under Republican and Democratic presidents alike. He added: “I am very concerned about the assault on our institutions coming from both an external source – read Russia – and an internal source – the president himself.”
As Clapper suggested, Trump has been undermining the institutions and mores that undergird our political process; whether or not his conduct was felonious, it has been profoundly subversive.
Apart from Comey and the Russia investigation, Trump has systematically attacked the institutions of American life that he sees as impediments. He denounced judges and the courts. He has attacked journalists as “the enemy of the people,” and urged that some be jailed for publishing classified information. He has publicly savaged Democrats and Republicans who stand up to him.
More broadly, Trump has ignored longstanding democratic norms, such as that a presidential candidate release tax returns and obey certain ethics rules. He flouts conventions against nepotism. And perhaps most fundamentally, he simply lies at every turn: Politicians often spin and exaggerate, they even lie in extremis to escape scandal. But Trump is different. He lies on autopilot, on something as banal as the size of inauguration crowds.
Obama was meticulous about ethics rules. He consulted lawyers before accepting the Nobel Peace Prize; aides were forced to give up Twitter accounts when they left office, to ensure they had not benefited improperly by gaining followers.
In contrast, the Trump family seems indifferent to optics – and determined to monetize the presidency. The latest ugliness is in a devastating exposé by Forbes about charity work by Eric Trump to raise money for children with cancer.
Eric raised some $16 million, which is wonderful. The Trump family had claimed to donate the use of its golf courses for these charity events, so that virtually all of the money raised was flowing to the sick children. Instead, Forbes says, the Trumps charged huge sums to hold the events – misleading the public, and profiting from donations intended for sick children.
Stiffing kids with cancer? This is cartoonlike. (The family hasn’t responded in detail, although Eric did say that, to him, the critics are “not even people.” He lamented that “morality’s just gone.”)
Donald Trump sought office as a law-and-order campaigner, and he is overseeing a crackdown against refugees, immigrants, drug offenders and other vulnerable people. But he is also systematically undermining the rule of law as “those wise restraints that make men free,” in the words of the late law professor John Maguire.
So as we watch Comey testify, remember that the fundamental question is not just whether the president broke a particular law regarding obstruction of justice, but also whether he is systematically assaulting the rule of law that makes us free.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.