As Amber Phillips put it in the Washington Post, “James B. Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee about his conversations with President Trump can be summed up in one word: Newsworthy.” Well, yes. And pretty good television-watching, even for West Coast viewers who had to get up rather early to be in at the start. But whether it was more than that remains to be seen. Trump supporters and Trump critics each had grounds to cry, “You see?” The former could point to Comey’s confirmation that he had on three occasions told Trump that he was not personally under investigation. The latter would point to Trump’s demand for Comey’s loyalty, his expressed “hope” that Comey would not pursue the investigation of Michael Flynn, and his persistent urging of Comey to state publicly that Trump was not under investigation, all leading up to Comey’s firing. Trump’s conduct was in the eyes of some critics unseemly and to others an attempt to obstruct justice. Despite the conflicting interpretations, however, the hearing may prove to have been more significant than its immediate impact might suggest.
Initially through his lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, and then personally by Twitter, Trump claimed “vindication” based on Comey’s acknowledgement that he had not personally been a subject of investigation. In fact, it was far from vindication, Comey having noted that the reason for not making that statement publicly is that circumstances might change. Trump also claimed that Comey’s testimony “showed no collusion, no obstruction.” Comey, however, was careful to leave the door open on both subjects. With respect to obstruction, he explicitly deferred to the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller and, as to collusion, he had an intriguing exchange with Republican Senator Tom Cotton. When he was asked by Cotton if he believed that President Trump has colluded with Russia, Comey’s reply was terse: “That’s a question I don’t think I should answer in an open setting.” For many observers, Comey’s reply clearly implied knowledge of at least some evidence of such collusion.
Quite apart from the issues of collusion and obstruction, both Republican and Democratic members of the Intelligence Committee—conspicuously unlike Trump—take extremely seriously the matter of Russian interference with the 2016 election and the prospect of similar or even more aggressive efforts in the future. An appropriately bipartisan tone was set by the Republican Chair of the Committee, Richard Burr, at the outset:
This committee is uniquely suited to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections. We also have a unified bipartisan approach to what is a highly charged partisan issue. Russian activities during the 2016 election may have been aimed at one party’s candidate, but as my colleague senator Rubio says frequently, in 2018 and 2020, it could be aimed at anyone, at home or abroad.
My colleague, Senator Warner and I, have worked to stay in lock step on this investigation. We’ve had our differences on approach, at times, but I’ve constantly stressed that we need to be a team, and I think Senator Warner agrees with me. We must keep these questions above politics and partisanship. It’s too important to be tainted by anyone trying to score political points.
That sober and bipartisan approach was maintained throughout the hearing and it stood in stark contrast to Trump’s continuing attempts to shrug off the Russian interference as simply an invention of Democrats disappointed by the election result:
Russian officials must be laughing at the U.S. & how a lame excuse for why the Dems lost the election has taken over the Fake News.
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!
The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign. Big advantage in Electoral College & lost!
Trump maintained that posture in his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador on May 10, at which he made no complaint whatever about Russia’s actions and referred to Comey as a “nut job.” And he reiterated it yet again at a Friday press conference with the Romanian President (“That was an excuse by the Democrats who lost an election that some people think they shouldn’t have lost, because it’s almost impossible for the Democrats to lose the Electoral College, as you know.”) Trump’s blame-it-all-on-the-Democrat’s stance may satisfy his base for at least the time being, but it has no credibility with the rest of the electorate, Congress and the Special Counsel.
Despite claiming vindication from Comey’s testimony, Trump and his lawyer accused Comey of lying about his conversations with Trump and, in particular, Trump’s asking for loyalty and his expression of hope that Comey would “let go” the investigation of Michael Flynn. On Friday, Trump doubled down by saying that he was 100% willing to testify under oath as to his version of the conversations. As one observer noted, however this is likely to happen at about the same time Trump releases his tax returns. Actually, testifying under oath concerning only the Comey conversations, would have minimal risk for Trump because, unless there are tapes, it would remain a matter of he said/he said. Moreover, even if Trump appeared to be lying about the conversations, it probably would not matter to his base. Trump’s record of mendacity is so well established, one more example would not likely be a game changer. On the other hand, if Special Counsel Mueller were to examine Trump under oath, he would undoubtedly insist on covering other subjects that would prove more difficult and dangerous for Trump.
Trump and Kasowitz also attacked Comey for leaking his memos to the New York Times. Here they have a point, albeit a small one. Comey’s desire to get his version of events out to the public, and to stimulate the appointment of a Special Counsel, is thoroughly understandable, but the method he employed, using a friend to speak to the Times, was curious and questionable. It would have been far more appropriate for him to have contacted the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Intelligence Committee, indicated that he wished to testify, disclosed the existence of supporting memoranda, and left it to the Committee to obtain the memos. That course would have gained every bit as much attention from the public and spared Comey the indignity of being tagged as a “leaker.”
It has now been reported that lawyer Kasowitz is going to file a formal complaint with the Justice Department concerning Comey’s handling of his memos. It is unlikely that, if such a complaint is filed it will get very far, but in any case a war with Comey will not solve any of Trump’s problems. As a veteran observer of the Washington scene wrote me, Kasowitz has failed to grasp the difference between litigation and political litigation, and the biggest takeaway from the Comey hearing was the unified concern of the Intelligence committee with Russian intrusion into our electoral system. In that respect, the hearing could prove to have been a milestone in the unraveling of the Trump presidency.
Trump told Comey that the Russian investigation was “a cloud” that was impairing his ability to deal with other priorities. And although Trump suggested, in his meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador, that he had solved his problem by firing Comey, that is clearly not the case. The cloud remains and is likely to deepen. Trump did not indicate to Comey whether the other priorities he had in mind were foreign or domestic, but they may well have been both. On the foreign side, the investigations are certainly an impediment to whatever kind of “deal” with Russia that Trump may have in mind—and so they should be. Any such deal, especially one lifting sanctions, should be viewed with a high degree of caution and skepticism. So far as domestic matters are concerned, it is doubtless true that the Russia investigations make it more difficult for Trump to work with Congress in pursuit of his rickety proposals for healthcare reform, tax reform and infrastructure, all of which would be in deep trouble even without the obstacle of a major distraction. If the added burden of the Russia investigations proves fatal, the collapse of Trump’s domestic agenda may have consequences that gain the attention of even his astonishingly loyal base.
Until that time, and barring some truly dramatic revelations, technical arguments about whether Trump did or did not attempt to obstruct justice will remain largely academic. It is the consensus view that, for sitting Presidents, impeachment is the only remedy. While that remedy is couched in legal-sounding terms, it is a fundamentally political act, and it cannot succeed without political will. Many Republicans in Congress, keenly aware that Trump’s base largely replicates their own, will feel obliged to trudge along in morose loyalty as long as they can.