As awkward silences go, this was a doozy. James Comey, then FBI director, was sitting alone in an excruciatingly uncomfortable dinner with a newly-elected President Trump. The two uniformed Navy stewards serving food and drinks had discreetly withdrawn. ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,’ the President supposedly said, according to Comey’s notes. Comey recalls: ‘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.’ At the end of the dinner, Trump is said to have returned to what seemed to Comey like the whole purpose of the dinner. ‘I need loyalty,’ he said, in Comey’s notes. ‘You will always get honesty from me,’ Comey replied.
That is Comey’s account, drawn from notes he rapped out on an FBI laptop in the back of his limo as it drove away from the White House. This version of events is contained in seven pages of Comey’s written statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee, recalling in lawyerly – or perhaps prosecutorial – detail his discussions with Trump about the FBI’s Russia investigation. The statement was released to the US media on Wednesday apparently with Comey’s blessing, building the drama for his appearance before the committee later today. The Washington Post, speaking to the usual anonymous officials, says the president is beside himself with worry about what will happen then. He has reason to be concerned…if Comey’s account is believed.
To Trump’s enemies, everything the President did at that dinner, and subsequently, screams ‘obstruction of justice’. One of Comey’s friends, Benjamin Wittes, wrote on his blog that the former FBI director’s statement was ‘the most shocking single document compiled about the official conduct of the public duties of any President since the release of the Watergate tapes…Comey is describing here conduct that a society committed to the rule of law simply cannot accept in a president..’.
Comey writes that while President Obama spoke to him privately only twice over a period of four years, in just four months there were a total of nine one-to-one conversations with Trump. At the dinner, for instance, Comey recalls Trump asking him if he wanted to keep his job – something the FBI director says had previously been discussed and agreed. ‘My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretence that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.’
For Trump’s critics, no doubt the most damaging allegation in Comey’s notes will be what the President is supposed to have said about the inquiry into General Mike Flynn, who was forced to resign as National Security Advisor. Comey’s statement says that Trump asked him to stay behind after a meeting of officials in the Oval Office. ‘When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the President began by saying, ‘I want to talk about Mike Flynn.”…. He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy.”’ Comey was clearly deeply shocked by this – the president apparently trying to block an FBI investigation. ‘I immediately…discussed the matter with FBI senior leadership. I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.’
Comey says that Trump repeatedly asked if he himself was under investigation. The FBI director was able to assure the president that ‘we were not investigating him personally. That was true; we did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him. We…should do so if circumstances warranted.’ Here, Comey’s words should be parsed very carefully. It is possible, for instance, that the FBI was carrying out a wider counter-intelligence investigation into Trump’s associates, but with the President as the ultimate target. ‘It’s clear this is about Trump,’ my sources told me last year, when I first heard about the FBI’s Russia inquiry.
It is also possible that the FBI subsequently opened a file on Trump and that he is now under investigation. Watch to see if Comey is asked about either of these two possibilities later today.
Trump’s defenders, however, believe the president has been vindicated by Comey’s statement. They do not believe the President’s words – if actually spoken by him – make the case for obstruction of justice. That would require both intent and for the investigation actually to have been impeded, they argue. They take comfort from the fact that Comey’s statement confirms that the President was not himself under investigation at the time. ‘This is a good day for the President,’ one of Trump’s supporters in Congress declared to a group of conservative journalists over dinner.
It is as well to remember that despite what Trump calls ‘the cloud’ of Russia hanging over him, no evidence has yet emerged that his campaign colluded with the Kremlin to steal the US presidential election. In this week’s Spectator, I wrote that all the ‘wiretaps’ on Trump’s family, friends, and staff may not in fact show any such conspiracy (either because there wasn’t one, or because people are too smart to discuss treason on the phone).
It would be a terrible irony for Trump if without any underlying crime being proved, he finds himself at risk of impeachment for obstruction of justice.
That was the charge in the first of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. He should serve as a reminder that impeachment is a political process. Republicans hold both Houses of Congress, so Trump should be safe as long as he keeps their support, something that in turns depends on the continued loyalty of the people who voted for him. Trump has reportedly called Comey a ‘nutjob’ – language which appeals to his base – and says Comey is a liar. ‘James Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations,’ Trump tweeted last month, displaying a tin ear for history.
Trump’s lawyers no doubt fervently wish he would stop tweeting. But this is above all a political fight. And things are about to get ugly. Trump’s political skills include the deadly accuracy of the playground bully in conferring nicknames, something that may even have helped him win the presidency (remember Liddle Marco, Lyin’ Ted and Low Energy Jeb). So Comey has become ‘Showboat’ – a nickname that nails his rather preening public performances. As the former FBI director testifies, an attack ad with that title will air on American television. Paid for by the Great America Alliance ‘Showboat,’ it will say Comey ‘put politics over protecting America’. He was ‘consumed with election meddling,’ the ad says, even as ‘terror attacks were on the rise.’
It is still a mystery as to why, exactly, Trump fired Comey. The implication of Comey’s notes is that the President feared where the FBI investigation was going more than he feared the inevitable political firestorm over getting rid of an FBI director. I wonder if Trump is now regretting this – as is now all too clear to the President, Comey is not going quietly, and he is a powerful enemy. If Trump, along with almost everyone else in Washington, is watching the hearings today he might recall what another president, LBJ, said about another FBI director, J Edgar Hoover: ‘Better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.’
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent and fellow of the New America foundation