Former FBI director James Comey torched what remains of President Donald Trump’s credibility Thursday afternoon, calling him a liar at least five times in three hours of testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Trump’s claims that he fired Comey because of chaos and poor morale at the FBI “are lies, plain and simple,” the former FBI boss declared. He kept notes about his conversations with Trump, Comey said, because “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting.” He denied Trump’s claims, in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, that Comey had asked the president to have dinner in order to make the case to keep his job. In fact, Trump asked for the dinner, where he repeatedly demanded “loyalty” from the independent Justice Department official.
Comey also confessed that he took the unorthodox step of authorizing a friend to share the memos with reporters because “he thought it would prompt appointment of special counsel”—an admission that he felt the investigation needed that independence—and he seemed to confirm that special counsel Robert Mueller is now investigating Trump for obstruction of justice. “I’m sure that’s a conclusion the special counsel will look toward.” Finally, he said that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation because of “facts I cannot discuss in an open setting” that made his oversight role “problematic.”
It should also be noted that, according to Comey, never once in their nine conversations did Trump express concern or curiosity about the scope or nature of Russia’s involvement in hacking Democratic organizations during the 2016 elections.
Comey did not come away from the experience unscathed. Not just Republicans but Democrats asked Comey why he hadn’t challenged Trump harder on his inappropriate efforts to get information on the Russia investigation and to pressure Comey to drop the probe into former national-security adviser Michael Flynn. Comey admitted he should have been more clear with the president that such efforts were out of bounds. Idaho GOP Senator James Risch hung on the fact that Trump used the words “I hope you can see your way to letting Flynn go,” insisting that “hope” isn’t the same as an order. “He did not direct you to let it go,” Risch insisted. Comey replied, “I took it as a direction. He’s the president of the United States.”
In several comments, Comey made plain that he considered Trump’s suggestion an “order,” quoting Henry II’s famous, menacing quote about Thomas Becket, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” (Becket wound up dead two days later.) It was not an inapt comparison, though it did serve to remind us of Comey’s high self-regard. Comey’s testimony that he considered Trump’s meddling in the Flynn investigation “an order” could be crucial evidence of obstruction of justice if Mueller decides to pursue such a charge.
The former FBI director seemed to step on his own headlines Wednesday night, when he authorized the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to release his prepared testimony. On first read, there were few bombshells—only because The Washington Post and The New York Times had each been fed several shocking stories drawing on Comey’s memos documenting his meetings with Trump and Trump’s multiple requests for Comey’s loyalty, as well as his efforts to influence or even in one case quash the FBI’s investigation into his campaign and top advisers.
The most remarkable anecdote in the document, which made it into testimony only at the very end (and then not usefully, presented by a seemingly incoherent Senator John McCain): In their last conversation, after nine separate meetings or phone calls in four months (Comey met with Obama only twice in three years, he wrote) Trump told Comey: “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing, you know.”
The FBI director continued: “I did not reply or ask him what he meant by ‘that thing.’”
On social media, many people immediately thought of the infamous line from Goodfellas, “I took care of that thing for you.” (Personally, I went to Lauryn Hill.) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tried to reassure MSNBC: “What you’re seeing is a president who is now very publicly learning about the way people react to what he considers to be normal New York City conversation.” Normal New York City conversation? For mobsters, maybe. Mafia dons expect loyalty; presidents know the FBI director operates independently from the White House.
Comey told McCain that he interpreted “that thing” as a reference to their early conversations about “loyalty” and Comey’s remaining in his job, as though Trump had done him a favor by keeping him on. But Comey said he couldn’t be sure. None of us can.
What we can be sure of, unfortunately, is that Comey’s testimony won’t move the GOP toward action to rein in Trump. It gives the rest of us a little bit more insight into what independent counsel Mueller may be seeing; it may give us hope that the investigation will hit its targets. But this process is likely to move slowly, as long as GOP leaders, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, defend Trump’s Comey coercion as the actions of a neophyte who “was new at this” FBI-independence stuff. They’ll defend him until he hurts them more than he helps, and who knows when they’ll decide that will be?