The James Comey Blues

Terry H. Schwadron

Well, there were highlights — James Comey Jr. said President Trump had lied about why he fired him and there was no question that the President had acted inappropriately — but ultimately, after the public hearing had ended, it was hard to feel good. With so many truths and proprieties strewn dead across the stage, I certainly wasn’t cheering for anyone at the end.

It started strong — an historic moment featuring Comey as a heroic figure who was willing to acknowledge that he should have spoken out more forcefully when things got weird in the White House. By the time it had ended, Comey was still a very believable figure, but he managed to leave more questions than we had at the outset.

Actually, I think Comey succeeded mostly only at defending his own reputation. Special counsel Robert Mueller III will still have to deal with the hard stuff.

The public portion of the Comey hearings were promised to clear the air over Presidential interference into three investigations, including:

· Activities involving then-National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn. The hearing made clear that he’s clearly in criminal trouble.

· More generally, activities related to the Russian election interference. We got plenty of certainty and information that Russian efforts were aimed at hundreds of targets.

· Whether President Trump obstructed justice by asking former Comey to drop the Flynn matter and to declare publicly that Mr. Trump was not the object of any particular investigation. The President fired Comey because he didn’t drop any investigation or publicly clear the President. Our easily irked President wanted what he wanted and fired Comey when he couldn’t get it.

Actually, there were two hearings — that led by Democratic questions, and that drawn from Republican questions. And that duality is at the center of our discomfort, both as citizens and as viewers of the hearings. While both hearings were willing to throw Flynn to the wolves and proved open to feeling of outrage about Russian interference, senators split along partisan lines on the obstruction questions, much as we knew they would.

Indeed, Republican senators went out of their way to frame questions in ways to make Mr. Trump sound almost folksy in leaning on Comey to drop charges building over Flynn. A few, including John McCain, stretched the breadth of questions to reopen concerns about FBI’s probe last year of Hillary Clinton’s email use, as if that somehow is equal or part of whether Mr. Trump committed an unrelated crime.

Democrats, meanwhile, looked at the nature of the inappropriateness of the President’s actions, trying hard to get Comey to use the word obstruction. He wouldn’t.

Again, as predicted, Comey came across as truthful, if now dismissed public servant; the President came across as inappropriate at best and the villain of the piece; Team Trump members generally were cast as spineless yes-men; and you can score Flynn as a total legal loss. Comey made no bones about Russian state involvement in the elections, so, Mr. Putin may have to tweet his unhappiness too.

The hearings actually make Mueller the most important person not in the room to watch. Lost a bit in all of this is that we’re talking about people having committed real crimes in high office, whether legally enforced or not.

Along the way, it became clear that President Trump was much more focused on a public declaration that he personally was not under direct investigation than he was and continues to be concerned about any Russian interference. Still, nothing Comey said suggested that the President wanted the general Russia probe halted.

Instead there were a blizzard of references to the details of a meeting on this date and a phone call on that date, and questions about why Comey himself had not admonished the President of the United States about crossing important boundaries of FBI independence, of not illegal obstruction. Comey pled guilty to being overwhelmed in the Oval.

Along the way, Comey criticized both the former and current attorney generals, and acknowledged having a friend leak his private notes about meeting with Mr. Trump in hopes that the content would result in appointment of a special counsel, which it has in Mueller.

There was a lot of back and forth about the meaning of the President saying he “hoped” Comey would drop any investigation of Flynn. Republicans asked questions that would tend to show “hope” as a straight expression of aspiration; Democrats more properly sought to put the words in context of a boss seeking an underling to follow his desires. In any event, that’s how Comey said he took it. Hey, there were nine phone calls and meetings together between the President and Comey; it is fully credible that Mr. Trump wanted something from Comey and was using his powers as President to get it. Formally criminal or not, it was abuse of power

Funny, you don’t hear most predators described as being casual or folksy when they bring an underling into the office to pressure them. We call those people predators for a reason. In fairy tales, the wolf may dress and sound like a sheep, but the teeth are just as sharp in eating the little pig. There was a little bit too much faux concern about the actual words used in order to help shield the President through a bad day.

What seems beyond belief is that we have a President who is ill equipped for the job, but who is protected because Republican party affiliation and team success seems to mean more than ethics and good leadership. What I want is for all of these committee members to call out the President for bad behavior. He has lawyers and his own preferred ignorance to protect himself.

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