In many ways, James Comey’s official opening statement regarding his discussions with President Donald Trump reminds me of the day the FBI director informed the American people that, though Hillary Clinton had done a number of corrupt things, in his view none rose to the level of indictable behavior. Comey, in effect, scolded Clinton while at the same time exonerating her.
Unlike the Hillary case, however, there’s still no evidence that Trump attempted to subvert the Russian collusion investigation or stop the FBI’s work—in fact, according to Comey, most of Trump’s ire was driven by how slowly the investigation was progressing in clearing him.
According to the former FBI director’s opening testimony, it’s clear the president either doesn’t understand the need for an independent FBI or, more likely, doesn’t really care. The tenor of the conversations Trump had with Comey are likely similar to the tenor of business conversations he’s had with business subordinates his whole life. He’s impatient and impulsive.
None of which absolves bad behavior, but it does put it in some perspective. In Washington, asking for the loyalty of the FBI director is abnormal, inappropriate, and an issue worthy of censure. Telling the FBI director that, though you fired Michael Flynn, “he is a good guy and didn’t do anything wrong, I hope you can let it go,” is also abnormal and inappropriate. But it doesn’t seem to meet any standard of obstruction of justice (unless Comey has more to tell us tomorrow.)
So when someone like Benjamin Wittes, Comey’s hyperbolic unofficial spokesperson, writes that this is the “most shocking single document compiled about the official conduct of the public duties of any President since the release of the Watergate tapes,” he is only correct in noting that no one has bothered to compile a document on the previous administration’s actions involving the IRS or the Clinton Foundation. Certainly not Comey, who failed to keep notes of the two private meetings he had with President Barack Obama over eight years.
What struck me is that on more than one occasion Trump went out of his way to ask Comey to hasten his investigation as a means of clearing his name. That doesn’t sound like a person trying to shut down an inquiry, so much as one hoping to get it over with. When Comey and other members of the intelligence community visited the president and told him about the salacious, now-discredited dossier (one that was written by a former British agent working for a company that was allegedly being paid by Russians; later to be published in full by Buzzfeed), Trump asked the FBI director if he could open an new probe to clear him:
During the dinner, the President returned to the salacious material I had briefed him about on January 6, and, as he had done previously, expressed his disgust for the allegations and strongly denied them. He said he was considering ordering me to investigate the alleged incident to prove it didn’t happen.
Comey, it turns out, was the one who dissuaded the president from pushing the issue. Now, perhaps Trump was bluffing, but if that’s the case, we have to treat everything Comey relayed from Trump with similar skepticism. The former FBI director goes on:
He described the Russia investigation as “a cloud” that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to “lift the cloud.” I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well.
According to Comey, every time the president approached the FBI to grouse about the “the cloud” of the Russia investigation hanging over his administration, he was asking the FBI to move things along quicker to clear his name, not to stop. This, too, is inappropriate, but it certainly doesn’t sound like obstruction of a Russian collusion investigation. Comey writes:
The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren’t investigating him.
That Trump might be concerned with his reputation, above all else, is about the least surprising thing I’ve ever read. The dossier upset him. So it seems entirely plausible that Comey was fired because he wouldn’t publicly confirm that the president wasn’t being investigated, something he told Trump three times—as the president claimed.
It’s also conceivable that Trump might have acted irrationally, demanding investigations that could prove him guilty. And perhaps evidence of collusion or obstruction of justice will be uncovered by Robert Mueller. Perhaps Comey will offer context on Thursday that makes his initial statement far more potent. There are plenty of questions he should answer. Or maybe, our president just has a huge ego, a shady history, and shockingly bad judgement—but never colluded with Russia or attempted to shut down an investigation.
Democrats, though, have set expectations high. Impeachment-high. This is now the issue that everything pivots on. And I’m normally pro-impeachment myself, but, alas, we don’t remove presidents for “abuse of power”—not even Bill Clinton was impeached on Article IV—or every one of them would be removed from office. There’s going to have to be evidence.