Washington is abuzz with anticipation of former FBI director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday; an open session begins at 10 a.m., followed by a closed session in the afternoon.
It will indeed be thrilling and revelatory to hear about a Trump-administration controversy from a named, on-the-record source.
One big reason for the anticipation is that on May 16, the New York Times reported that Trump asked Comey “to shut down the federal investigation into Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting, according to a memo Mr. Comey wrote shortly after the meeting.” Some legal minds contend that these sorts of comments constitute ipso facto evidence of presidential obstruction of justice; others, such as our Andy McCarthy, argue that the perception of pressure is not the same as felonious obstruction of justice.
The Times hadn’t actually seen Comey’s memo, but according to the story, “one of Mr. Comey’s associates read parts of it to a Times reporter.”
Does the memo exist? Almost certainly. Did that Comey associate characterize it accurately? Probably, but without being able to look at it ourselves, we can’t be 100 percent sure. Maybe this Comey associate is really mad about the firing and is putting his own spin on the memo’s contents. It’s a little odd to have a blockbuster article about Comey’s memos with no statement from Comey in it, and in the weeks afterward, the former FBI director never came out and helped clear anything up, even with a simple statement like, “Yes, the memo exists, and yes, the Times article characterized my recollection of the meeting with the president accurately.”
For what it’s worth, the White House issued a statement contending the version of events described in the memo isn’t accurate. “While the president has repeatedly expressed his view that General Flynn is a decent man who served and protected our country, the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn,” the statement said. “The president has the utmost respect for our law enforcement agencies, and all investigations. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey.”
Beyond the memo, there might even be incontrovertible evidence about who said what in that discussion. A few days before the Times story, Trump had tweeted, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
The implications of Trump’s tweet are that he thought Comey would lie about the content of their conversations, and that Trump has audio recordings of those conversations. White House press secretary Sean Spicer offered the unhelpful follow up, “I’ve talked to the president, and the president has nothing further to add on that,” and refused to say whether the Oval Office had a secret taping system. (Would one exist as part of the Secret Service’s security measures?)
The American people are left in a murky fog, forced to choose which unverified version of events they want to believe.
So we’re left with Trump’s suggestion that Comey is a liar and that Trump may or may not have proof . . . but nothing definitive. If there are tapes showing that Comey is lying, why not release them? Why withhold evidence? And if the tapes don’t exist, why put out a vaguely threatening tweet implying they do?
It’s all a mess of unnamed sources making accusations and named sources denying them but offering no proof. The American people are left in a murky fog, forced to choose which unverified version of events they want to believe. The past months have brought a near-daily ritual of White House reporters’ offering revelations of egregious scandals, citing anonymous sources, often “current and former U.S. officials.”
When we see the phrase “former U.S. officials,” are those Obama-administration officials? Would these officials still be in a position to legally know what’s going on in sensitive White House conversations? Wouldn’t Obama-administration officials have a fairly glaring motivation to characterize the Trump White House in the worst possible light? If an unnamed source says something like, “Rex Tillerson is a bumbling buffoon who can’t hold a candle to the last secretary of state,” doesn’t it matter a great deal if the source is John Kerry?
Sure, it’s willful blindness to dismiss any story involving an unidentified source. But reporters are asking a lot from readers when they rely on unnamed sources day after day. And at least sometimes, those reports of shocking scandals don’t pan out. No, the Saudis didn’t contribute to “Ivanka’s Fund,” they contributed to a World Bank initiative, one that Ivanka Trump does not control or direct. The story that the Trump administration turned down requests for additional resources for the investigation into Russia runs afoul of acting FBI director Andrew McCabe declaring under oath before Congress, “I know that we have resourced that investigation adequately.” Trump wasn’t rudely ignoring other foreign leaders at the G7 summit; he had a small earpiece in his ear that wasn’t visible from a particular camera angle. Those cases of beer on Capitol Hill weren’t for the GOP celebrating the passage of the American Health Care Act after all.
Not every scandalous claim about Trump turns out to be a false alarm. But it happens often enough, and enough credulous media repeat and retweet those false claims, for Trump fans to develop an instinctive skepticism. Yes, reporters trust their unnamed sources. But should readers?
Americans won’t have to take it on faith Thursday. Comey will answer questions under oath, and hopefully shed a little more light on what happened and what didn’t happen. The country deserves less fog, fewer anonymous accusations, fewer vague insinuations, and more clear answers.
— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent of National Review.