Perhaps President Donald Trump didn’t technically obstruct justice when he fired Jim Comey, the FBI director who was investigating his associates and campaign. Maybe he did.
Either way, Trump’s actions were scandalous. Congress and the American public should expect a higher standard of conduct from the American president than the bare-minimum bar of “it wasn’t technically illegal.”
Comey, who at the time was the nation’s top criminal investigator, decided to take notes after his unusually frequent meetings with Trump, he said, because of the “nature of the person” he was dealing with. That’s astonishing. Comey has gone after murderers, drug lords, and corrupt politicians.
Never before, he told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, did he get the same “gut feeling” that he needed to watch his back, and that of his bureau, in interactions with previous presidents. This time, though, he felt that Trump was trying to interfere with his investigative mandate.
Comey testified that Trump asked him to stop looking into the activities of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and pushed him to lift the “cloud” of the larger Russia probe. While Trump told Comey it might be good to look at “satellites” in the Trump orbit, it might be inferred that Trump was suggesting he was willing to throw subordinates under the bus in service of clearing the president’s name as expeditiously as possible.
As Trump once claimed, Comey reassured him repeatedly that he, himself, was not under investigation at the time. And Trump wanted the public to know that, which isn’t an unreasonable desire given that the Russia storyline has cast a pall over the administration.
Weighing the truth
But it was highly inappropriate for him to ask Comey to exonerate him in the midst of an investigation that could, conceivably, involve him at some point. On Friday, Trump accused Comey of saying things that “just weren’t true,” but Comey’s contemporaneous notes weigh heavily against the president’s side of the story.
Comey may not have always exercised the best judgment, but senators of both parties praised his integrity and patriotism during the course of his public testimony. If he’s not Captain Courageous, as he said, neither is he a nefarious knight. It seems highly unlikely that he began constructing a fake chain of events to ensnarl the president long before Trump fired him. It is much more believable that his spidey sense — or his “gut”— led him to make a prescient decision to keep a record of the truth in case things got weird.
And they did get weird.
After failing to convince Comey to let Flynn off the hook, to say publicly that Trump wasn’t under investigation and to expedite his investigation, the president fired him.
In between, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who now appears to be in legal jeopardy himself, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein cooked up the official line that Comey was dismissed because he acted improperly in the Hillary Clinton email investigation that contributed mightily to Trump’s victory in last fall’s presidential election. Trump quickly debunked that on his own, pointing to the Russia investigation as the cause for removing Comey from office six years before his term was set to expire.
It is conceivable — even likely — that Trump was never part of any conspiracy with Russia to tilt the election in his favor. And still, after a lifetime of exercising leverage to get his way, he has opened the question of whether he illegally interfered with a federal investigation. In the simplest terms, Comey represented justice, and Trump obstructed him.
What should scare Congress, the American public and White House officials, is that Trump shows no signs of remorse — of having committed an error by behaving in a way that was tolerable in the private sector but not the public sector. Comey’s testimony strongly suggests he saw a man before him who would not respect basic norms of conduct for a public official in the short term or the long term.
If it was improper for former President Bill Clinton to meet with Attorney General Loretta Lynch when the FBI was investigating his wife’s email use — and it most certainly was — what’s the term for the sitting president telling the FBI director to back off a probe into the conduct of officials in his campaign and administration? It has to be something more than “improper” and perhaps something less than “illegal.”
Trump has an opportunity now to tell the public that he did the wrong thing and that he has learned the hard way that he can’t behave as president the way that he did as the head of a private business. He should apologize and ask for forgiveness.
If he doesn’t, it’s a sign that he has no plans to change — that he will use whatever power is at his fingertips to get whatever he wants, regardless of the norms that undergird the rule of law. That means the presidency and the public will be subjected to even more of what we’ve seen so far — and it might just get worse.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is a co-author of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 16 years.