By Dick Polman
James Comey’s sworn Senate testimony basically confirms what anyone with a smidgen of mental cognition has known since day one — that Donald Trump is a toxic narcissist whose animal instinct is to breach America’s institutional restraints and enforce personal fealty in the manner of a lawless mob boss.
It’s all there in Comey’s meticulous statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee about his interactions with Trump. At minimum, it’s a damning indictment of Trump’s character (or lack thereof). At its worst, it’s a road map for Trump’s removal. In the words of Philip Allen Lacovara, a former deputy U.S. solicitor general and counsel to the Watergate special prosecutors, “Any experienced prosecutor would see these facts as establishing a prima facie case of obstruction of justice.”
Protective notes The FBI is tasked with being an independent agency; Trump, one week into his sordid reign, sought to strip that independence and reduce Comey to the role of lickspittle. As Comey recalled (relying on the notes he made at the time), the one-on-one dinner with Trump on Jan. 27 was “an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.”
(By the way, with respect to Comey’s contemporaneous note-taking: He told the committee that he never did that after speaking with President Bush, and never did that after speaking with President Obama. But this guy was different. He decided to take notes because of “the person I was interacting with…the nature of the person…I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting.” It’s an historic moment when a high-ranking career public servant publicly calls the president of the United States a liar.)
Kiss the ring Anyway, at that January dinner, he tried to explain to Trump “why it was so important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House” — Civics 101, to anyone who knows anything about American checks and balances — but, alas, it didn’t work. Trump simply morphed into Don Coreleone (“I need loyalty, I expect loyalty”), and said again, near the end of the dinner, “I need loyalty.”
Having set the terms (or having deluded himself into believing that he’d set the terms), Trump followed up on Feb. 14. He told Comey that he wanted the FBI to stop its criminal investigation of paid Russian propagandist Michael Flynn (“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go”). Comey promised nothing. On March 30, Trump phoned Comey and asked what Comey could do to “lift the cloud” of the Russian probe. Comey again demurred. On April 11, Trump phoned again, and asked Comey to tell the public that Trump wasn’t personally being investigated. Comey said that he himself couldn’t say it, but that Trump’s request was being routed through proper channels.
That thing… Whereupon Trump said, “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal. We had that thing, you know.” Comey now recalls, “I did not reply, or ask him what he meant by ‘that thing.’” (Comey needs to watch the film “Goodfellas,” especially the scene when a loyal thug nicknamed Pete the Killer tells Henry Hill, “Hey, I took care of that thing for ya.”)
But Comey repeatedly refused to play the loyal toady. As he says in his testimony, referring to Trump’s attempts to interfere with the Russia probe, “it was important to infect the investigative team.” But Comey paid the price for resisting infection. He was summarily fired. And after lying for a few days about why Comey was fired, Trump told Lester Holt of NBC News — and, subsequently, some Russians visiting the Oval Office — that the firing was indeed done to ease the Russia probe.
Lacovara, the ex-counsel to the Watergate special prosecutors, connects the dots: “Comey’s statement lays out a case against the president that consists of a tidy pattern, beginning with the demand for loyalty, the threat to terminate Comey’s job, the repeated requests to turn off the investigation into Flynn and the final infliction of career punishment for failing to succumb to the president’s requests, all followed by the president’s own concession about his motive.” That’s obstruction of justice, which, according to the federal statutes, requires “corrupt intent.”
Of course he didn’t “order” Comey Naturally, that’s not how the senatorial Trumpkins see things. They don’t connect the dots; they just grasp at straws. At one point during the hearing today, Idaho’s Jim Risch said it was no big deal that Trump wanted to kill the Flynn probe – because Trump didn’t specifically order Comey to kill it, he just said he hoped that Comey would let it go.
Risch: “He did not direct you to let it go?”
Comey: “Not in his words, no.”
Risch: “Again those words are not an order? He said ‘I hope.’”
Comey: “I took it as a direction. This is the president of the United States. I took it as a direction.”
Republicans on the committee kept asking: If Trump was abusing your independence so badly, why didn’t you stand up to him more forcefully? Which was a hilarious line of inquiry, given the fact that most Republicans have been cowering in a fetal position for the better part of a year, saying and doing nothing about Trump’s serial lies, conflicts of interest, and abuses of power.
Trump’s lawyer, and most Republicans, are actually telling themselves that Comey’s testimony exonerates the Leader. They’re highlighting the part where Comey says Trump wasn’t personally under investigation (as of March, anyway), but ignoring the part where Comey says he refused to say so publicly because Trump might be targeted in the future. Indeed, if Trump wasn’t a target before, he’s likely to be a target now; Comey told the committee that he’s “sure” that special counsel Robert Mueller is looking at Trump for possible obstruction of justice.
Most importantly, Trump’s dwindling defenders are ignoring the overall thrust of Comey’s remarks — the fact that a tinpot autocrat thinks personal loyalty trumps loyalty to the U.S. Constitution.
Basically, it was the word of a boy scout, who took contemporaneous notes, against the word of a demonstrably serial liar. For the sake of this nation, let’s hope the Comey episode can hasten the latter’s departure.
Dick Polman, former political writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, blogs at www.newsworks.org, where this column originally appeared.