The Semantics of “I Hope”: On James Comey’s Testimony to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
This morning former FBI Director James Comey, whom President Trump fired on May 9, testified in an open session before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. This is one group that is investigating the impact of Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. Comey was overseeing another such investigation at the FBI. The day after Comey’s firing, on May 10, the President informed the Russian ambassador and foreign minister — in the Oval Office, of all places — that Comey was a “real nut job” and that his firing would relieve the pressure of the Russia investigation.
That was a very stupid move on the President’s part. Rather than tamping down the investigation of potential collusion between members of his campaign and Russian operatives, Comey’s firing only added fuel to the fire. Indeed there is now a recently appointed special counsel — former FBI Director Robert Mueller — looking into evidence of collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russian operatives. This appointment only happened after Comey’s firing.
What we learned from today’s testimony is that, very soon after his firing, Comey orchestrated the leak of his own notes regarding his interactions with Trump. This was precisely in order to force the Deputy Attorney General’s hand, into having no choice but to appoint a Special Counsel. Comey’s move ensures that the Russia story will dominate much of Trump’s term (unless impeachment or resignation comes first), hampering Trump’s agenda while serving as an ongoing reminder of the President’s massive stupidity.
Although there is no evidence to date that President Trump personally coordinated with people in Russia, there is sufficient evidence of such contact among people close to him that multiple investigations (in the Senate and with the Special Counsel) continue apace. After all, we are talking about potential collusion with agents of another country seeking to disrupt a United States Presidential election. This is why Comey’s leaks were so effective — they ensured that the President could not bury this vital story.
Irrespective of whatever the President may have personally coordinated with Russian operatives, there is strong evidence that he asked Comey to end an ongoing investigation of Michael Flynn. Mr. Flynn, a former General, was Trump’s first National Security Advisor. He lasted just 24 days on the job. Trump fired Flynn on February 13, after it became abundantly clear that Flynn had lied about his own contacts with Russian officials. Far from merely exhibiting poor form, this may have meant that Flynn committed a crime — in late December Flynn allegedly told the Russians that sanctions imposed by the Obama administration, in retaliation for Russian interference in 2016, would soon be lifted. We only have one President at a time, and Flynn did not work for President Obama (who was then still in office). Flynn got ahead of his skis, to say the absolutely very least. But on February 14 President Trump, in an improper and impromptu 1:1 meeting, asked Director Comey to drop any criminal investigation of General Flynn.
Trump’s exact words, per Comey*, were, “I hope you can let this go.” If Comey’s version is accurate, it is highly probable that Trump was attempting to obstruct justice.
All of the above has been very well-reported. But I offered the extended set-up to set the stage for the thrust of this post — Comey’s interaction today with Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho. Risch pointed out that one person’s merely hoping for a particular outcome (in this case, that all investigations of Flynn will be stopped) is not tantamount to ordering another person someone to fulfill that request. (See video link above).
Risch was relying on literalness here. We all know that when someone in a position of authority (such as the President of the United States, for example) says they “hope” that something will happen that this is not an idle of neutral statement. Trump may have been savvy enough, in this case, not to issue a direct order. But this does not mean that his intentions or preferences were ambiguous or unclear.
Indeed, multiple Senators challenged Risch’s interpretation of “I hope.” One of the most memorable exchanges occurred with Senator Angus King, Independent of Maine. Both he and Comey, virtually at the same time, referenced King Henry II’s famous utterance in 1170: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Within a month after making this statement, the Archbishop of Canterbury — the aforementioned meddlesome priest — had been murdered by loyalists to the king.
So sure, Henry II did not say: “Boys, pop the priest, and get yourselves home by suppertime.” But they knew what they were supposed to do all the same.
*Per Comey: As Senator Joe Manchin pointed out during his questioning, all of this comes down to who we are supposed to believe — Comey, or Trump? Unless there are authentic and accurate tapes of their conversations, which Trump thuggishly suggested might be the case, this is a classic instance of he said/he said. Based on the totality of evidence regarding the character and integrity of the two individuals in question, my bet is firmly on Comey.