The most stunning part of James Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee was his explanation of why he decided to keep detailed memos of his meetings with President Donald Trump.
“I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting,” said the former FBI director. He added later that he had documented the meetings because of “the nature of the person that I was interacting with … “
Comey’s blunt use of the L-word, which many politicians and journalists have shied from, did the country a great favor. He has shined a spotlight on the high cost – both to our democracy and our security – of Trump’s constant litany of lies.
Politicians and pundits from both parties have gawked for years at Trump’s tenuous relationship with the truth. We are not speaking of common political evasions often practiced by politicians but of a constant stream of half-truths, hyperbole and falsehoods.
Trump built his political base through years of promoting the birther lie, claiming Barack Obama was not an American citizen. Fast forward to his presidential campaign, when the Washington Post fact-checker gave around 64 percent of Trump’s statements Four Pinochios – their worst rating. By contrast, not more than 10 to 20 percent of the statements of most politicians were labeled that way.
Moreover, Trump started his presidency with whoppers about the size of his inaugural crowds, and about millions of fraudulent voters for Hillary Clinton, lies he kept repeating despite clear evidence to the contrary.
Even the Wall Street Journal editorial page – not exactly a bastion of liberalism – lambasted Trump in March for his unfounded claim that Obama wiretapped him in Trump Tower, followed by the president’s outrageous support for a fake Fox News claim that Obama outsourced the tapping to British intelligence.
The Journal rightly called Trump “his own worst political enemy” who was damaging his presidency “with his seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials, and other falsehoods.” Would Trump have any credibility, the Journal asked, if he had to lead during a global crisis?
Comey’s testimony again highlighted that burning issue: How can Americans or our allies trust a president who can’t, or won’t, stop debunking the truth?
The ex-FBI man called out the president’s initial fib about why he fired Comey (Trump first claimed the lawman had lost the confidence of the FBI, but later admitted it was because of the Russia investigation). With a host of details, Comey debunked Trump’s claims of never having tried to derail the investigation into Russian hacking and into Michael Flynn’s involvement with Russia. He spoke of Trump’s improper demands for “loyalty” and the president’s cleverly worded suggestions that Comey drop the Flynn case.
But what I thought most important was Comey’s response to a senator’s question about Trump’s continued denials of Russian interference in the U.S. election – which the president denounces as “fake news.”
“There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever,” Comey said. “The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. And it was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government.
“It is a high-confidence judgment of the entire intelligence community, and – and the members of this committee have – have seen the intelligence. That happened. That’s about as un-fake as you can possibly get.”
And here we come to the heart of the matter. The president’s continued prevarication about the Russian hack indicates his utter indifference to truth.
This doesn’t necessarily mean there was collusion between Trump and the Kremlin. But clearly the president is annoyed at the investigation and wants it over. He sees no problem in doubling down on his denials – never mind the risks to U.S. security – because he knows his political base will accept his “fake facts.”
The biggest danger is that Trump’s lies will become the new normal, accepted by too many Americans who haven’t the time to pay attention to fact-checkers. And, since the president insists his lies are truth, then those who tell the truth must be branded as liars.
Indeed, Trump already tweeted and told the press that Comey was the liar. But Comey has a reputation for probity and independence. He had no reason to take on the president save for his concern that there be no White House interference into ongoing investigations into Russian espionage.
Given Trump’s history, there is little reason to believe him, especially since he refused to confirm to the media what he had previously hinted – that he had taped Comey’s conversations. The FBI man, on the other hand, told the Senate committee, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” And his meticulous notes will serve as evidence of what actually went down.
Perhaps Trump has taken as a role model the behavior of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he is so eager to commune with. Just prior to Comey’s testimony, in an interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly, Putin demonstrated how a former KGB operative can dispense total falsehoods without moving a facial muscle.
Of course, the Kremlin leader totally debunked all claims of Russian hacking, even suggesting that U.S. hackers might be the culprits and were shifting the blame to Moscow. Then he topped that whopper with the claim that the Syrian government’s sarin gassing of civilians was “false information” – a setup (by whom, he didn’t say) to defame the Assad regime.
The difference between the Kremlin and the White House is that, in Russia, government officials and the state-owned media faithfully parrot Putin’s narrative. In this country, so far, much of the media and courageous officials such as Comey – along with the impressive bipartisan performance of the Senate Intelligence Committee – still act as a check on Trump’s deceptions.
And in the game of he-said, he-said between Trump and Comey, the president’s history hands the victory to the G-man, hands down.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.