WASHINGTON – There will be much for special counsel Robert Mueller to unpack after last week’s momentous testimony of James Comey: Did President Donald Trump’s actions amount to obstruction of justice? Did Attorney General Jeff Sessions violate his recusal from the Russia probe? Should Comey have acted sooner?
But such legal considerations, though important, miss the real significance of Comey’s testimony heard-’round-the-world. In the three hours I sat transfixed in Room 216 of the Hart Building, 15 feet behind the fired FBI director, the line that chilled me more than any other was Comey’s account of why he wrote extensive, real-time notes of his conversations with Trump. “The nature of the person,” Comey explained in part. “I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document.”
The nature of the person.
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This was the essence of Comey’s testimony: that the president of the United States is, at his core, a dishonest and untrustworthy man. It was a judgment on character, not a legal opinion, and even Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee made no real attempt to dispel it.
By itself, it’s neither a high crime nor a misdemeanor for a president to be dishonorable. But it’s a stain on the country, and it defines this moment. This is why Trump can’t get legislation through Congress or get allies to cooperate, and why so many worry he will disregard constitutional restraints. The president is not to be trusted.
The founders did not anticipate this, a defect not just of private misconduct (which we’ve seen before) but of public character. “The process of election affords a moral certainty,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 68, “that the office of president will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single state; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of president of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.”
But the moral certainty of the Enlightenment broke down with the election of something more medieval. When Sen. Angus King, the Maine independent, asked Comey whether he took as a directive Trump’s expressed “hope” that Comey drop the FBI’s probe of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, Comey reached back to the words of 12th-century autocrat Henry II that led to the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. “Yes,” Comey said, “it rings in my ear as kind of, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”
The former FBI chief and top official in the George W. Bush Justice Department was unsparing in his challenge to Trump’s character, saying that Trump’s administration “chose to defame me” and the FBI with “lies – plain and simple.” Comey noted that he never felt the need to document his conversations with Presidents Bush or Barack Obama, telling Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that he got “a gut feeling” about Trump “and the nature of the person that I was interacting with.”
Republicans on and off the panel largely accept Comey’s assessment of Trump’s character. House Speaker Paul Ryan suggested that “the president’s new at this” and “probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols.” But, he added, “I’m not saying it’s an acceptable excuse.”
Republicans on the committee defended Trump on some technical points but not on matters of integrity. Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, called Comey’s testimony “as good as it gets” for legal writing and accepted that “we know exactly what happened” between him and Trump. Collins said Trump “never should have cleared the room, and he never should have asked you, as you reported, to let it go – to let the investigation go.”
Trump is growing lonely in his protestations of his own probity. Friday morning, he inexplicably claimed “total and complete vindication.” Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders vouched that “the president is not a liar. I think it’s frankly insulting that that question would be asked.”
No, what’s insulting – to America – is that the question doesn’t need to be asked. Comey, until last month the nation’s top lawman, confirmed what we already knew.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.