On the surface, former FBI Director James Comey’s long-awaited Senate Intelligence Committee hearing was underwhelming, failing to turn up a clear smoking gun. A closer analysis of what Comey said, however, portrays a damning picture of the president’s behaviour and, in doing this, undermines several of the arguments used by both the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress. In particular, three main themes stood out.
First, from the outset, and in his answers to senators, Comey highlighted the reality and the gravity of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. He stated that there should be “no fuzz on [the issue] whatsoever”: the Russians interfered in the electoral process.
“It’s not a close call,” he added, “it’s about as unfake as you can possibly get” – a sure reference to Trump’s suggestion that the allegations regarding his campaign collusion with Russia was “fake news”.
More ominously yet, Comey also stressed that the Russian effort is clearly directed from the Kremlin and is a long-term strategy aimed at undermining future elections and the integrity and credibility of American democracy. This is made even more concerning by Comey’s admission that the president has never shown any interest in Russia’s behaviour and actions, nor in what measures could be taken to prevent future interference.
Second, while being very cautious in his account, Comey made unmistakably clear how poor an opinion he has of the president and the White House. In his opening statement, he accused the White House of lying about the FBI and, in particular, of lying regarding the reasons for Comey’s firing and, by doing so, discrediting the bureau. The administration decided to defame Comey and the FBI, saying that the bureau was in disarray and that it had lost confidence in Comey’s leadership. “Those,” said Comey, “were lies.”
Comey’s wariness of trusting the president became something of a theme. When asked why he had felt the need to write memos about his meetings with Trump when he didn’t do the same after meetings with other officials, Comey suggested three main reasons: circumstances (the president had insisted on meeting Comey alone); the sensitive nature of the investigation; and Trump’s own behaviour. As he plainly explained, based on Trump’s record, Comey feared that at a later stage, the president might lie about the nature and content of the meetings.
Comey drove that message home when asked how we could move beyond the he said-he said situation. As he put it, to decide who to trust, one would have to assess the consistency of a person’s statements, as well as look at his track record, demeanour, and record over time; a clear signal that on all these scores, Comey’s record is better than Trump’s.
In defiance of the president’s tweets on the matter, Comey also confirmed his hope that there are tapes of the conversations. Beyond the president, Comey also criticised the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Sessions should have refrained from any involvement in the Russia probe, after recusing himself, but Comey’s firing proves otherwise. Comey also repeatedly asked the attorney general not to leave him alone with Trump, but Sessions never showed an interest in discussing with Comey the nature of the meetings.
Cracks in the wall
The issue at the centre of the hearing was whether Trump had obstructed justice by asking Comey to drop the investigation of the former national security adviser, General Michael Flynn. As Comey reported in his written statement for the record, Trump’s words were: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” During the hearing, Senator James Risch as well as other Republicans, implied that this did not amount to ordering Comey to drop the investigation on Trump and Russia.
Comey’s responses were unambiguous. First, he made clear that he interpreted Trump’s words as relating only to the investigation regarding General Flynn and not the wider investigations into Russian interference or collusion with the Trump campaign. Exposing Risch’s argument, however, Comey stressed how when the president says “I hope”, it’s difficult to argue with him.
Then, in what many seem to consider the hearing’s most important moment, Comey admitted that Trump’s sentence was not an explicit order. But he also added that: “The reason I keep saying his words is I took it as a direction. In other words, the president directed the director of the FBI to drop at least part of the investigation regarding ties between the Trump team and Russia.”
But in the public hearing, at least, Comey seemed unwilling to take the final step. Asked whether Trump’s behaviour amounted to obstruction of justice, Comey replied: “That’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work towards.”
The issue remains, then. Republican senators have seemed, once again, unwilling to criticise the president. Speaker Paul Ryan, in particular, has played the naivete card, suggesting that the president is still learning how to behave on the job. But, as The New York Times editorial board correctly argued, “Mr Comey wasn’t suggesting Mr Trump was … inexperienced. He portrayed him as an unscrupulous leader whose request put the nation at risk”.
In spite of calls for bipartisan recognition of the threat posed by Russian hacking, Republicans still seem to be putting loyalty to the president over the loyalty to their country. In the meantime, at a Faith and Freedom rally, Trump told his supporters: “We are under siege.” The walls defending the White House have so far just about held, but the cracks are getting bigger by the day.