The Silent Treatment
“[The Comey statement] is the most shocking single document compiled about the official conduct of the public duties of any President since the release of the Watergate tapes.”
—Benjamin Wittes, Lawfare
No small anticipation attends Thursday’s testimony by fired FBI Director James Comey. His written testimony has been released. To jaded observers like yours truly, the bombshells contained in Comey’s chronicle of his abortive tenure under President Trump don’t come as any great shock. It certainly doesn’t take one’s breath away to learn, at this comparatively late date, that Trump views the presidency as an autocracy demanding preferential dealing for select cronies and unquestioning fealty from law enforcement officials who might otherwise be in a position to make trouble. We have become accustomed to blatant criminality on the part of the president and his retainers.
Then again, maybe we’re looking at the substance of Comey’s prepared statement all wrong. Perhaps we should regard the text like a trailer for a big disaster flick. We see the key explosions, but we look forward to all the build-up and dramatization that will come in a congressional hearing, where dogged interrogators will draw out and embellish incriminating facts again and again, until a child of six is able to figure out what transpired.
Meanwhile, those on the committee lacking the apparent cognitive faculties of a child of six will delve into the crime wave of leaking stuff that makes them uncomfortable.
Here are the key naughty bits in the written text, all of which recount conversations between Comey and Trump. (It is amusing to point out that in four months, the two communicated at least nine times. Comey was named FBI director by Barack Obama in 2013 and over the next three years communicated with him just twice.) So here we go:
- January 6: Comey meets with Trump at his eponymous Manhattan tower and assures him that he, Trump, was not the subject of a counter-intelligence investigation. Note this is not the same as a criminal investigation, which for all we know could have been in motion. Sitting in an FBI vehicle after the meeting, Comey writes a memo on the exchange. This will get filed, constitute evidence that the conversation occurred, and be available subsequently for subpoena.
- January 27: Comey is invited to a dinner by Trump that, contrary to his expectations, turns out to be just the two of them. (There must be a precedent for this in some romcom or another.) Trump asks Comey if he wants to stay on, which Comey interprets as an effort to establish a “patronage” relationship. Then Trump goes into his Paulie Cicero–Goodfellas act, saying he needs and expects “loyalty.” At this point, Comey turns into a statue. Then he tries to explain to Trump that the position of FBI director is supposed to be independent of politics. (Which is bollocks, but I digress.) Trump gets back on his loyalty jag, Comey promises “honesty,” and they compromise on the oxymoronic formulation of “honest loyalty.” One gets the impression that at that point, Comey badly wanted to get out of the room. (How badly? Well, consider this chilling account of a senior bureaucrat’s eloquent-yet-silent inner distress, in the heat of the loyalty interrogation: “I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.” It’s a bit as though Samuel Beckett was drafting a revised screenplay of All the President’s Men.)
It’s a bit as though Samuel Beckett was drafting a revised screenplay of All the President’s Men.
Unfortunately, Comey does not manage to lunge for the exit before the topic of the pee tape—er, excuse me, comes up. Trump, betraying his unfamiliarity with elementary logic, wants the FBI to prove there is no such tape. (“It was very difficult to prove a negative,” Comey says he told the president, running headlong once more into what we might term the six-year-old-child paradox of Republican governance.) After the meeting, Comey writes another memo.
- February 14. After a group briefing, Trump asks Comey to stay behind for another tête-à-tête. Both Jared Kushner and Attorney General Sessions—Comey’s boss—linger in an effort to be included. Trump tells them to scat. This in and of itself is an indictment of Sessions, who is the logical intermediary between the FBI and the White House. It’s as if there is no chain of command; there is just El Supremo. This is when Trump tries to lean on Comey to leave Mike Flynn alone, because he is innocent of any wrong-doing but also “a good guy.” CNN legal commentator Jeff Toobin said, “If that isn’t obstruction of justice, I don’t know what is.” That seems to be the smoking gun, legally speaking: obstruction of justice, though Lawfare blogger and friend of Comey Benjamin Wittes (quoted above) asserts that while all of it is reprehensible, none of it is illegal.
Comey writes another memo but doesn’t share it with Sessions. Interestingly, Sessions has been thrown out of a meeting between the president and his subaltern, and afterward he apparently doesn’t ask Comey what transpired. Comey does exhort Sessions to prevent any such one-on-one meetings in the future, having learned what all too many women before him have realized to their great distress: Nothing good comes of being alone in a room with Donald Trump.
- March 30 phone call. Trump calls Comey, says the “cloud” of the Russia stuff is preventing him from making America great again, and please make this cloud go away. (Yes, more evident obstruction of justice. ) Trump asks why Congress is having hearings—an altogether bizarre query from a sitting president, since nothing Congress does materially involves any decision of Comey’s. Comey says you’re still cool, we’re not investigating you. Trump says, please announce that. Trump reminds Comey he (Trump) is blameless. After the call, Comey immediately relates its substance to Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente. Probably writes another memo.
- April 11 phone call. Trump again takes to the phone, asking Comey to announce that Trump is not under investigation, because of the “cloud” thing. Comey says Trump should go through his boss, at that time the Acting Deputy Attorney General. Trump reverts to Paulie Cicero mode: “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” In his statement, Comey professes ignorance as to what “that thing” is.
That’s the end of the submitted statement, but the testimony will include questions and answers that worry over all the details noted above. As Jeffrey Lebowski would say, new shit may come to light.
If law-breaking was the definitive criteria for settling the fate of President Donald J. Trump, we would have advanced a good way beyond where we are. But impeachment is a political exercise, not a legal one. Members of Congress have to want to depose the president. The will for that appears to be lacking at this point. (The will to dismantle federal health care coverage, meanwhile, has become a hell-for-leather obsession in our sickly legislative branch.)
But it’s still early, and the long aftermath of James Comey’s tour in the witness chair is going to be fabulous. And there’s increasing cause to hope that one day a disgraced and criminally liable Trump will shift restlessly through all his many future awkward silences alone, Citizen Kane style, in the gaudy Xanadu penthouse of Trump Tower.