Never before has, or presumably again will, a former FBI director say such harsh things about a sitting president of the United States.
In his much-anticipated congressional testimony, James Comey called President Donald Trump a liar who fired him over the Russian investigation. In any other context, involving any other president, Comey’s words would be very damaging, perhaps to the point of debilitating.
But his appearance had been billed as Watergate and the Clinton impeachment rolled into one, another step toward Trump getting permanently helicoptered out of the White House in a Nixonian tableau, and by this standard, his testimony didn’t deliver.
Comey doesn’t have Trump nailed for high crimes and misdemeanors so much as amateurish and ham-handed scheming, which is not an impeachable offense.
The Comey-Trump relationship is a tale of a bureaucratically agile and self-serving careerist matched against an institutionally ignorant and self-serving outsider. One was careful, memorializing every conversation and calculating his every move; the other was blundering around in the dark — and eventually blew the whole thing up.
The narrative that Democrats want to believe is that Trump is in so deep with the Russians that he took the incredible risk of firing his FBI director to cover his tracks. The picture presented by Comey is instead of a president driven mad by the investigation, in particular by his inability to get the FBI director to say publicly that he isn’t under investigation — when, in fact, he wasn’t under investigation. Trump became desperate to get this fact out in the public and badgered Comey about it, to no avail.
Even though Comey talks — a lot. He said during last year’s campaign that the Hillary Clinton investigation was closed, opened, and closed again. A couple of months ago, he told a congressional committee that a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign was ongoing.
Besides telling Trump he wasn’t under investigation, Comey had briefed congressional leaders, telling them the same thing. It wasn’t crazy for Trump to wonder why, with so much blabbing, Comey couldn’t simply let this be known? Especially with half the political universe believing that the authorities were rapidly closing in on Trump.
Comey’s own account undercuts the idea that Trump wanted to shutter the Russia investigation more broadly. In his written statement to the committee, Comey says that in one phone conversation, Trump said “that if there were some ‘satellite’ associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out.” In other words: Have at it with Manafort, Page, and Stone, et al.
This doesn’t sound like obstruction of justice. Which is not to say there isn’t plenty else that is damning. Comey makes it clear, if any doubt remained, that the memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein cataloging Comey’s mishandling of the Clinton case prior to his firing was always a ridiculous smokescreen.
As for Trump’s request that Comey not pursue a case against Michael Flynn, this wasn’t illegal. Trump expressed a hope and an opinion (Flynn had already been punished enough), and didn’t issue an order to drop the case. Even if he had, it would only be obstruction if he had corrupt intent, for which there is no evidence. Still, this conversation was foolhardy and inappropriate.
Finally, in no universe is it OK for a president to demand “loyalty” of his FBI director, as Comey alleges Trump did during their one-on-one dinner at the White House (Trump’s lawyer disputes this).
No doubt, if a Democratic president had behaved this way, Republicans would be going bonkers. The Comey testimony was, at the very least, a stinging portrayal of a president who doesn’t understand or evidently much care how our government is supposed to work. But that falls short of what Democrats, in their current fevered state, hyped this into. They hoped and expected to get a swift hanging. Comey landed blows, but the political and legal fight goes on.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2017 King Features Syndicate