Who first set a precedent in Comey and Trump’s one-on-one meetings?
For weeks now, Americans have had a good picture of the dynamic between President Donald Trump and former FBI Director James Comey.
The prepared “Statement for the Record” released by Comey on Wednesday prior to his Thursday morning testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee (scheduled for 10 AM Eastern Time for two hours in public session, followed by one hour in closed session) adds little new and reinforces, rather than alters, that existing picture.
The picture is not a pretty one for Mr. Trump, but it is also not disastrous and will have approximately zero impact on his support among his current base and among Republicans more broadly.
January 6 Briefing:
Despite my description above, Comey’s statement actually begins with a hint of new information — information that actually helps the president somewhat: The first time that Comey and Trump met was during a January 6th intelligence briefing for the then president-elect. It was at that meeting that Trump was informed of the bogus “dossier” that some media outlets were going to run stories on, and Comey reports that the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, asked Comey to brief Trump on this issue by himself.
In other words, it is possible that Mr. Trump, with no expertise in executive branch (or really any other) boundaries, believed, due to his first meeting with Comey being one-on-one, that such meetings were within the ordinary course of business.
Comey reports that later in the same meeting he assured Trump that the president-elect was not being investigated by the FBI. Interestingly, Comey says he offered that assurance “without (Trump) directly asking the question.”
So again, it is possible that Mr. Trump took Comey’s approach, namely proactively giving him the information that Comey knew Trump would be interested in, and in a way which tended to help the President’s public relations efforts in the face of bogus charges leveled against him, as standard practice. Trump therefore might have found Comey’s future lack of openness to be a disappointing surprise.
January 27 Dinner:
While President Trump’s statement made in his letter terminating Comey’s tenure at the FBI that Comey repeatedly assured him that he was not under investigation is now confirmed by Comey, Trump’s opponents will be looking for even the smallest conflicts in their stories. The first such conflict appears in Comey’s claim that the president invited him to dinner on January 27; Mr. Trump has said that the dinner was Comey’s idea. Given the entirety of Comey’s subsequent testimony, it is Comey who appears more credible on this item. It’s an extremely minor point, but when minor points are almost all you have, expect Democrats to run with it.
There are two key claims by Comey regarding the January 27th dinner:
First: He felt that President Trump was trying to get him to ask to keep his job, thereby “creat(ing) some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly…”
Second: President Trump said “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.” Toward the end of the dinner, when Comey promised honesty, Trump retorted “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” It’s not the only time in Comey’s testimony that the president sounds, depending on your political bias, either like a man whose inexperience caused him to not know where ethical lines are drawn or like a political Vito Corleone wanting Comey to kiss his ring.
Febuary 14 Oval Office Meeting:
After a White House counter-terrorism briefing by Intelligence Community leaders, President Trump asked James Comey to stay. After all others had left the room, Trump said, according to Comey, “I want to talk about Mike Flynn.” The subsequent narrative has all been reported before: Trump said that Flynn “is a good guy” and added “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go….”
Comey states that he understood Trump to be asking him to drop an investigation into whether Flynn made false statements about having spoken to the Russian ambassador in December, but “I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign.” Comey found the request “very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.”
Again, political bias will color how this conversation is interpreted.
Trump supporters will say that even if Flynn made false statements, Trump was demonstrating loyalty to a man whom he valued as a friend and advisor, while Trump also noted that Flynn had been fired for misleading Vice President Pence but that the president did not believe Flynn had done anything wrong in speaking to the Russians.
Trump detractors will cry “obstruction!” and some Americans who do not understand the legalities of that term may agree: the president perhaps tried to stop or “obstruct” an FBI investigation.
There’s no doubt that the optics for Trump are bad; it is a conversation he never should have had.
But the obstruction case is exceedingly weak outside of the media-Democrat echo chamber, a place where the law has never been particularly well heeded or understood. (Anyone remember “I’ve got a pen…and I’ve got a telephone” or the two dozen times that same man said he did not have the legal authority to unilaterally change American immigration law just before he went ahead and did it, to cheers from liberals everywhere?)
Lawyers will argue over how close such a request gets to “obstruction of justice.” I don’t think it gets very close at all. The statute requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted “corruptly, or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication” to impede or obstruct the proper administration of the law. None of this appears to exist in this situation. It also requires a “pending proceeding” such as a grand jury, which also does not appear to have been in place. This is, in part, why, on Thursday, Jim Comey will not say that he believes President Trump obstructed justice.
Comey says that soon after this meeting, he told Attorney General Sessions that a president asking for a one-on-one meeting with the FBI Director was inappropriate, and suggested it should never happen. According to Comey, Sessions did not reply although Comey does not report ever having another one-on-one meeting.
Again, it looks at least ill-considered, even downright stupid, of the president to have cornered the FBI director this way. But if I were the GOP spin room, I’d refer back to the first meeting between Trump and Comey during which Comey set the precedent for one-on-one meetings and give Mr. Trump information in a way that could have caused Trump to see the FBI director as, in part, his defender, especially when Trump believes that his position deserves defending. This theme becomes central in what remains of the Trump-Comey relationship.
March 30 Phone Call:
It has been clear throughout the Trump presidency that Mr. Trump believes himself innocent of any wrongdoing regarding interaction or “collusion” with Russia — which makes sense because there has never been a scintilla of evidence pointing to any such connection or malfeasance. Mr. Trump has called the Russia investigation a “witch hunt.” No doubt he believes it, and so far I have seen no evidence that he is wrong although this particular witch hunt has been intensified by Trump’s own statements, particularly to NBC and to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister immediately following Comey’s firing.
As a man whose reputation is always front-of-mind, it is not surprising that President Trump repeatedly expressed exasperation with the “Russia investigation” as “‘a cloud’ that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country,” according to Comey. Trump asked Comey “what we could do to ‘lift the cloud’” to which Comey suggested allowing the process to move ahead unimpeded because “there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well.”
It is easy to understand both men’s positions in this situation.
One of the shortest paragraphs in Comey’s prepared statement is also one of the most interesting: In the March 30 phone call, according to Comey, President Trump went on to say that “it would be good to find out” if any “‘satellite’ associates of his… did something wrong” but asked again if there would be any way for the FBI to publicly state that Trump himself was not being investigated. These are hardly the words of a man who believes the law is closing in on him or has any need or desire to obstruct justice.
Comey thought, but did not say, that “the FBI and the Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change.”
For those who doubt Comey’s seriousness on this question, I refer you to his informing Congress that the FBI was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information, an act that he suggested to his FBI staff and to Congress as emanating from a similar duty, and which some believe put the final nail in Clinton’s electoral coffin.
Again, it is easy to understand both men’s positions. Comey’s requires little explanation. As for President Trump, if you consider his certainty that he’s done nothing wrong, then he would not have any concern about a “duty to correct” and instead would remain rightly indignant that a media-created uproar over non-existent collusion was keeping “the cloud” over his ability to do his job as effectively as possible. (Mr. Trump is well aware that such a cloud is exactly what Democrats in Congress and the media want, no doubt making the situation doubly frustrating for a man who just gave the Democrats a firm-handed electoral spanking.)
April 11 Phone Call:
The last time Jim Comey spoke with Donald Trump, the president asked what Comey had done to “get (the word) out” that Trump was not under investigation. Comey said that he had passed the request on to the Acting Deputy Attorney General immediately after the March 30 conversation but had not heard back. Not surprisingly, Mr. Trump again decried “the cloud” interfering with the execution of his job.
Comey suggested that “the White House Counsel should contact the leadership of DOJ to make the request (to publicly clear Trump’s name), which was the traditional channel.”
Closing with a story which seems like something of a jab at the president, perhaps in retaliation for “nut job,” Comey relates: “He said he would do that and added, ‘Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.’”
For those teetering between seeing Trump as a naïve political newbie and someone who acts like a loyalty-demanding Mafioso, this anecdote might push you off the fence. Nevertheless, it is not within spitting distance, or any distance really, of criminal (or even particularly unethical) behavior for the president to ask about, not order, a public clearing of his name by dissemination of the truth.
It’s hard to see how Thursday’s Senate testimony by James Comey will offer nearly the drama that CNN and other Trump opponents breathlessly hope for. Not only has Comey laid out a story that is not especially harmful to the president, but which would be harmful for Comey to then contradict, we should also remember that Comey has always positioned himself as the last honest man in Washington, a reputation which he certainly hopes to capitalize on with a seven-figure white-shoe law firm partnership. The last thing he wants to do is hurt his professional future by destroying his carefully honed reputation, even if most of the country isn’t buying what he’s selling.
Photo credit: Mike Licht, Flickr, Creative Commons