In one of the most widely awaited events in recent US political history, James Comey, the former FBI Director fired by President Trump a month ago, testified yesterday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Bars in Washington opened early, showing Comey’s testimony live on big-screen TVs. Welcome to the reality television show of US presidential politics, and counter-espionage probes, in which we now live.
His testimony is part of the greatest political scandal in America since Watergate: Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election. (In fact, according to a former US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, the Russian scandal today is even bigger than Watergate.)
The issues at stake in this reality TV series of presidential politics can be easily ridiculed—will Trump tweet?—but they are profound. Comey’s Congressional testimony goes to the heart of the proper functioning of US democracy, being concerned with checks and balances on the executive branch, and, crucially, whether President Trump obstructed justice by exerting pressure on America’s senior law enforcement officer.
Before his Congressional appearance yesterday, Comey released a prepared written statement. With its crisp, clear, language, it reads more like a screenplay than the dry legalese expected of an FBI director.
The opening shot, before the credits, is the FBI head being called for a one-on-one dinner with the president, held at a small table in the centre of Green Room at White House, waited on by two Navy stewards. The FBI man and the president stare at each other in stony silence.
Then, in another scene, we have the president asking for the Oval Office to be cleared of people, including the Vice President and Attorney General, so he could have a quiet conversation with the FBI Director. "As the door by grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the President began by saying, 'I want to talk about Mike Flynn.'" Cue opening credits.
We learned from Comey’s testimony that after his first one-on-one meeting with Trump, he felt so uneasy (a “gut feeling”) that, unlike his meetings with previous presidents, he decided to make a written record immediately after. He did so on each of the nine meetings and calls he had with Trump. When pushed yesterday on why he did so, Comey said that he took this unusual step because he was honestly concerned that Trump might subsequently lie about their meetings. This is a bombshell statement to make about America’s commander-in-chief.
Three key questionsComey’s screenplay-like written testimony, and his two and half hour Congressional appearance, reveal three claims key to the Russia probe and whether Trump obstructed justice: first, that President Trump was not, during Comey’s time, personally under FBI investigation; second, that Trump requested “loyalty” from Comey; and third, that Trump directed Comey to “let go” of the FBI investigation into his former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn. In normal times, any one of these issues would produce news headlines for months. But these are not normal times.
In his written and personal testimony, Comey revealed that, at least when he was FBI Director, Trump was not personally under FBI investigation. He testified that when Trump asked him to go public about this, he declined to do so because it would create a “duty to correct”; that if Trump subsequently did become a target of FBI investigation, then Comey would have to correct publicly his previous misleading statement. Comey was doubtless mindful of his previous experience of going public, on the eve of the 2016 election, with the fact that Hillary Clinton’s emails were again under FBI investigation.
When pushed yesterday about his statement that the FBI was not investigating Trump “personally,” Comey said this related to FBI counter-intelligence investigations on him, not his broader campaign. He explained that he voluntarily gave Trump this assurance because, ironically, he did not want to be in a J. Edgar Hoover-type situation—a reference to the files that the FBI’s first Director notoriously held over several US politicians.
Pledging loyaltyA second alarming revelation in Comey’s testimony was that Trump asked him for a pledge of loyalty, almost like something from the Godfather: “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty”. According to Comey, Trump made this request at their one-on-one dinner at the White House at the end of January.
In an awkward silence that followed, Comey did not move, speak or change his facial expression, but instead told the president he could offer him “honest loyalty”—not blanket loyalty, as Trump apparently wanted.
Though Comey’s offer of honest loyalty may seem like splitting hairs, it goes to the heart of the FBI’s job: to act independently of the executive branch and enforce US law. The FBI Director takes an oath of loyalty to the US constitution, not the president. Comey’s testimony also directly contradicts a previous statement by White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, that Trump did not ask for Comey’s loyalty.
A matter of patronage?From Comey’s perspective, it seemed like Trump was trying to create a kind of “patronage” relationship with him. An obvious question is what happens when the patron tires of his subject; the answer is that he gets rid of him. As Trump himself explained, he fired Comey because of “the Russia thing.” The day after he fired Comey, Trump welcomed Russian diplomats to the Oval Office—nothing unusual, says the White House—and reportedly told them that firing Comey would ease pressure on him.
It does not stop there. Another alarming revelation in Comey’s testimony yesterday, which he gave without notes, was that Trump asked him to end the FBI investigation into Flynn. According to Comey, Trump said that he “hoped” that he would “let go” of the Flynn investigation. Asked what he understood the president meant by his “hope”, Comey said he understood it to be a direction, or instruction, from the president to end the FBI Flynn investigation. Comey’s testimony directly contradicts what Trump said at a press conference on 18 May, which was that he did not ask Comey in any way to back off his investigation into Flynn.
If charges of obstruction of justice are brought against Trump, which are impeachable offences for a US president, it seems likely they will focus on these two grounds: whether Trump directed the FBI to kill a live investigation and whether Trump fired Comey to ease pressure on him.
Trump's egotismAnother worrying, if not surprising, matter revealed by Comey’s testimony is Trump’s egotism. The president comes across as more concerned about himself—that he was not personally under FBI investigation—than others in his team. In fact, according to Comey, Trump said that if there were "satellite" members of his team who did something wrong, then it would be good to find that out. Presumably, there are members of Trump’s White House currently wondering if they are “satellites” who Trump is prepared to throw under the bus, if necessary.
The end of episode oneWe seem to be at the end of this first episode of presidential reality TV, but there is much more in the series to come.
Trump was apparently obsessed with publicising the fact that, under Comey, he was not personally under FBI investigation. Ironically, however, by firing Comey, Trump set in motion of chain of events by which almost certainly he is now under investigation. It was Trump’s firing of Comey, and suggestions that he obstructed justice by doing so, that led to the appointment of a special counsel, Robert Mueller, who now has broad powers of investigation over the Trump White House.
Watergate was said to involve smart people who went too far. Trump’s scandal is the opposite: not very clever people, bumbling forward. It is stupid Watergate.
Who will Trump fire next? Will he be exonerated, impeached, or resign beforehand? Tune in soon.