World

US: James Comey takes on Donald Trump as millions watch, mesmerised

Sometimes politics generates a show that is more than sound and fury signifying something. Thursday, in Washington, in an open Senate hearing, was one such moment in time. And it is just possible that this is the beginning of a skein that ultimately leads to something big for the new president. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

Sometimes, in the most difficult of circumstances, people will do something that helps restore one’s faith in government. Or at least part of it, for a little while, until something else comes along and destroys it all over again. On Thursday morning in Washington, DC, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held an open hearing with the former (and summarily fired) FBI Director James Comey as the star – and, indeed, only – witness.

Watch: Full James Comey Testimony on President Donald Trump, Russia Investigation at Senate Hearing (CBS News)

Rather than reading his prepared statement, he had released it the day before so that senators and the committee’s staff could comb through it and prepare their questions in advance – and to giving reporters a real heads-up on it as well. As a result, in his brief, introductory oral comments before the lengthy Q and A began, Comey accused the White House of some outright liar, liar, pants on fire-style behaviour as when Donald Trump had called him a “nutcase” and that the entire FBI workforce had been demoralised by Comey’s performance.

Or, as the ex-FBI director put it, “The administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI, by saying the organisation was poorly led. Those were lies, plain and simple.” Well okay then, gloves thrown down with those words, hey? Canny Washington veteran that he is, however, Comey didn’t just make his points and walk away. He had left a whole series of breadcrumb trails in his prepared testimony for the senators and staff aides to follow through to some rather astonishing details – and, largely, they did just that. This was better than Trump-style reality television too.

Republicans and Democrats alike largely eschewed partisan bickering or those long, tedious rhetorical statements not so cleverly camouflaged as questions that so often come from the mouths of senators. Instead, this time, they asked pointed questions aimed at teasing out the distinctions between any possible criminal, unethical, immoral, or just plain garden-variety vain, nasty, boorish, stupid behaviour on the part of the president. And virtually the entirety of the hearing’s broadcast became excellent educational television as a result. While it largely did not resolve into the usual kind of partisan bickering that has become all too common these days, a couple of Republican senators did their best to cast Trump’s behaviour in the very best, albeit improbable, light. But, largely, the facts in evidence were unchallenged.

Sitting stoically on one’s sofa for the entire hearing demanded some serious sitzfleisch and lots of coffee to stay with it. Millions of spectators in their homes, or in restaurants, offices and bars across the US were staying with this (and many bars in Washington opened early for the morning hearing with snacks and drinks specials). Meanwhile, just imagine the effort for the senators to stay on-point with the Q and A, and the fortitude demonstrated by their many aides, and a veritable horde of journalists and video camera operators, all packed into that hearing room and a video overflow viewing room next door.

  • Full disclosure confession: Yes, my eyelids drooped a few times (it had been a long day for me in South Africa) as the questioning sometimes combed over ground that had already been thoroughly groomed by previous questioners; but the hearing went on for hours and hours, after all. Nevertheless, throughout the entire hearing, the only questioner who seemed off his game was Arizona Senator John McCain. It seemed McCain’s attention was elsewhere as he quibbled over the meaning of words like “completed”. And he repeatedly tried to tease out differences between Trump’s presumed actions and the Russian cyberattack on the US election versus Hillary Clinton’s email server travails that had helped sink her presidential candidacy (and Comey’s public statements on those emails).

Still, it is important to remember that this teaching moment in governance and the importance of intense, detailed, no-holds-barred legislative oversight in open hearings, took place as the world’s attention was also being pulled towards the voting in the snap election also taking place in Britain. Then, too, there has been the aftermath of the deadly terror attacks in Tehran – and the increasing disorder in the Persian Gulf region.

There, Qatar’s neighbours – under the lead of Saudi Arabia – are increasingly isolating that ridiculously rich sultanate as they point to the former as a hidden sponsor, friend, and financier of Islamist terror groups (although support from some quarters within Saudi Arabia have not come up for similar public criticism). This move to isolate Qatar comes just a short while after Donald Trump’s visit to the region to press for unity against such groups.

That unity seems barely to have outlasted the assembled gathering to hear Trump’s speech. Diplomatic, trade, telecommunications and trade barriers have now all been erected against Qatar by many other Arab nations. These moves have drawn attention away from the purpose of the US president’s visit for unity in focusing on combating non-state actor terror activities. To make matters just a bit more complex for the region (and the US), Qatar also happens to house key US military installations in the region, and these have been central for actions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

But, returning to the scene at the Senate Intelligence Committee’s
hearing in the Dirksen Office Building in Washington, New York Times
columnist Charles Blow had argued on the morning of the hearing:

If you believe the [pre-released] Comey statement, you must take away from it that Trump is a liar, a bully and a criminal. You must take away from it that Trump has a consuming need to be surrounded not only by loyalists but also by lackeys. You must take away that Trump is brand obsessed — his own brand — and that anything that besmirches that brand must be blunted. You must take away that Trump knows nothing of decorum and propriety and boundaries. You must take away that this is the most comprehensive and compelling case thus far that Trump did indeed engage in obstruction of justice.

Trump’s comments as alleged in the Comey statement make Trump sound more like a mob boss than the president of a democracy. Comey recounts that at a Jan. 27 dinner alone with Trump in the Green Room of the White House, Trump demanded, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” This was after Trump seemed to implicitly threaten Comey’s job.

“ ‘The President began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to. He said that lots of people wanted my job and, given the abuse I had taken during the previous year, he would understand if I wanted to walk away.’

Trump was also insistent that Comey publicly state that Trump — not necessarily members of his campaign — was not at that time under investigation, because ‘the cloud’ the suspicion created was impeding his progress as president. As Comey recalls, Trump said he would do as Comey advised and have the White House counsel contact the leadership of the Department of Justice to make the request for a public statement, but then Trump added: Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that you know.’ I did not reply or ask him what he meant by ‘that thing’….

Trump was obsessed with the salacious dossier of unsubstantiated claims compiled by a former British spy, including the explosive claim that Russian authorities believed they could successfully exploit Trump’s ‘personal obsessions and sexual perversion in order to obtain suitable “kompromat” (compromising material) on him.’ ”

And as Politico reported on the subsequent hearing, the big moments in
Comey’s testimony comprised the following key moments:

COMEY TO HIS FORMER FBI COLLEAGUES: ‘The administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organisation was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple. And I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them, and I’m so sorry that the American people were told them.’

ON WHY HE WAS FIRED: ‘I guess I don’t know for sure. I believe – I take the president at his word, that I was fired because of the Russia investigation. Something about the way I was conducting it, the president felt created pressure on him they wanted to relieve. Again, I didn’t know that at the time. I watched his interview. I read the press accounts of his conversations. I take him at his word there. Now look, I could be wrong. Maybe he’s saying something that’s not true. But I take him at his word, at least based on what I know now.’

ON TAPES: ‘Look, I’ve seen the tweet about tapes. Lordy, I hope there
are tapes. I remember saying, “I agree he is a good guy,” as a way of
saying, I’m not agreeing with what you asked me to do.’

COMEY ON RUSSIAN INTERFERENCE: ‘There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever. The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. It was an active measures campaign driven from the top of that government. There is no fuzz on that. ... That’s about as unfake as you can possibly get.’

ON THE FEB. 14 ONE-ON-ONE WITH TRUMP IN THE OVAL: ‘My impression was something big is about to happen. I need to remember every single word that is spoken. And again, I could be wrong, but I’m 56 years old, I’ve been, seen a few things, my sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving which was why he was lingering and I don’t know Mr. Kushner well but I think he picked up on the same thing, so I knew something was about to happen that I needed to pay very close attention to.’

ON HOW CONTENTS OF A MEMO BECAME PUBLIC: ‘I asked – the president tweeted on Friday after I got fired that I better hope there’s not tapes. I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night because it didn’t dawn on me originally, that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might be a tape. My judgement was, I need to get that out into the public square. I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself for a variety of reasons. I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. I asked a close friend to do it.’ He said it was not Benjamin Wittes, the editor in chief of Lawfare, but it was a ‘close friend who is a professor at Columbia law school’.

ON WHY HE DIDN’T GIVE THE MEMO TO THE MEDIA HIMSELF: ‘Because I was weary [of] the media [that] was camping at the end of my driveway at that point. I was actually going out of town with my wife to hide. I worried it would be feeding seagulls at the beach, if it was I who gave it to the media.’

ON CLINTON’S EMAILS: The former FBI director said he did not regret his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server: ‘It caused a whole lot of personal pain for me but as I look back, given what I knew at the time and even what I’ve learned since, I think it was the best way to try to protect the justice institution, including the FBI.’ He also said that the meeting between Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac was the ‘conclusive’ reason he went public with the investigation. He also said that Lynch at one point ‘directed me not to call it an investigation, but instead to call it a matter, which confused me and concerned me.’

ON IF HE’D BE FIRED IF CLINTON WAS PRESIDENT: ‘That’s a great question. I don’t know. I don’t know. ... I might have been. I don’t know. Look, I’ve said before, that was an extraordinarily difficult and painful time. I think I did what I had to do. I knew it was going to be very bad for me personally. And the consequence of that might have been if Hillary Clinton was elected I might have been terminated. I don’t know. I really don’t.’

ASKED IF DONALD TRUMP COLLUDED WITH RUSSIA, Comey said he should not answer that in an open setting.”

That final point will increasingly be the subject of even more intense scrutiny than it already has been.

In a nutshell, the bill of “charges” was underpinned by the president’s demands for personal loyalty, above and beyond Comey’s constitutional duty; the president’s apparent efforts to obstruct the course of justice (although the actual state of Trump’s mind here is the crucial, unknown bit) in the ongoing investigation of those Russian hacks of the electoral process; and the fact that the president apparently hoped to do away with any and all critical material about himself (such as that salacious memorandum prepared by a former British MI-6 operative) that might find its way into a metastising investigation. Thus, when the then-FBI director refused to fold in this little high-stakes poker game, Trump just fired Comey out of a sense of pique or spite.

The irony, of course, is that precisely because he made those demands upon Comey, and then fired him for his reluctance to tug his forelock sufficiently, the now-dispatched former FBI director passed along his detailed memcons (Washington speak for “memorandum of conversation”) of his increasingly painful interactions with the president to a trusted friend, a Columbia University law professor. That friend, in turn, passed them along to the New York Times. The existence of these devastating reports then became a serious goad in the successful pressure for the appointment of a special counsellor to carry on the investigation of those Russian hacks – and any connections to Trump staffers and his presidential campaign that might exist.

Instead of Trump pushing Comey to drop the ongoing investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (the one Trump called “a good guy”) for some extensive dissembling about his contacts with Russian officials and institutions, it has now become a more serious affair. Rather than a slow-moving, rather stodgy, low-level-ish FBI investigation – now in the hands of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as the Justice Department’s special counsellor for this mess, the investigation has now much more heft to it. Crucially, Mueller has specific, delegated power to seek indictments, including seeking charges for criminal actions, against anyone who crossed legal red lines. Talk about your basic dramatic irony and the law of unintended consequences….

In the immediate aftermath of Comey’s testimony on Thursday morning, the president’s personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, accused Comey of being one of those leakers trying to wreck the nation, in his briefing at the National Press Club. And the White House’s Deputy Press Spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders (has the lead spokesman, Sean Spicer, been kidnapped by aliens?) came out with, as Politico reported, a definitive defence of a chief executive, saying, “ ‘the president is not a liar’ after former FBI director James Comey blasted the White House for telling ‘lies, plain and simple’ about the circumstances surrounding his firing last month. ‘No, I can definitively say the president is not a liar,’ Sanders told reporters at the White House during an off-camera briefing Thursday.”

Hmm… the last time we heard such a rousing defence of presidential actions was when Richard Nixon told the country, “I am not a crook,” in 18 November 1973, just as the Watergate scandal had taken on a real impetus. And we all know where that ended up. DM

Photo: A combo file picture showing US President Donald J. Trump (L) participating in a town hall meeting on the business climate in the United States, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House complex in Washington, DC, USA, 04 April 2017, and FBI Director James Comey (R) testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on 'Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.' on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 03 May 2017. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS/SHAWN THEW

HEADLINE FEATURES

YOUR NEXT ARTICLE