The protective layers around President Trump are wearing thin. The New York Times cites two unnamed sources who claim James Comey wrote a memo describing Trump’s request to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn, the retired general and one-time national security adviser. In light of Trump’s firing of Comey as FBI director last week, and other reports that Trump had demanded “loyalty” from Comey earlier in his presidency, it is getting easier to see how the dots might be connected to show Trump inappropriately tried to quash a criminal probe into one of his associates.
Combined with another recent report by the Washington Post — alleging Trump may have endangered our intelligence arrangements with another country by sharing information that country had gathered with Russian officials during their Oval Office visit last week (the Times has since reported that country was Israel) — Republicans in Congress appear increasingly leery of defending the president and his actions. What’s more, they also seem to concede these revelations have done severe damage to Trump’s, and hence their, ability to pursue a legislative agenda, from health care to taxes. Altogether the past 10 days may have altered the Trump presidency irreparably.
With news coming at such a fast clip, it’s hardly worth speculating one way or the other as to how this may unfold. Instead, here are some key questions that need to be answered:
- What exactly does the Comey memo say? The Times’ story acknowledges the newspaper “has not viewed a copy of the memo, which is unclassified, but one of Mr. Comey’s associates read parts of it to a Times reporter.” I can imagine a couple of my journalism professors recoiling at a news outlet publishing such a consequential story without having seen the actual document in question, but this is where we are. That means it is vitally important that the entire document be made public as soon as possible.The Times reports that Comey recorded Trump’s comments as “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” The context of these remarks is crucial. Did Trump say this simply to express his opinion? Did Comey take it as a threat? An order? As a condition of anything else happening? Did Trump link it in any way to himself? Was this also one of the three occasions Trump claims Comey said he was not under investigation? Was this one of the times, also according to unnamed associates of Comey, that Trump asked for his loyalty?
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House oversight committee, has asked the FBI for all “memoranda, notes, summaries and recordings referring or relating to any communications between Comey and the President.” He set the deadline as May 24. But I’m not sure Americans can wait another week for this particular memo.
- Will Comey testify before Congress? House Republicans, including Georgia’s Barry Loudermilk, are calling on him to do so. Comey has so far declined such invitations, and instead appears content to let his allies push his story anonymously through the media, but he is rapidly losing that luxury. He is at the center of the most significant executive-branch crisis in decades.He needs to come before Congress and explain himself on the record, sparing no detail.
- Is there any way to substantiate what Comey wrote or might say in testimony? The poisonous nature and tribalism of our politics means a substantial number of Americans will side with “their guy,” Trump, no matter what Comey might say. That may or may not affect how Congress decides to proceed, but it will certainly shape the public reaction — and whether Congress’ actions are deemed legitimate. That may not matter to those who view Trump with utter contempt … until a crisis of confidence in the president mutates into a crisis of confidence in our constitutional system itself.Trump has mused on Twitter about the possibility there are recordings of his conversations with Comey. If there are, those need to come out as well. (And there better not be any gaps.) According to the Times, no one else was present during the meeting in question.
- Will Trump administration officials continue to defend the president? Flynn’s replacement, H.R. McMaster, gave a clear if nuanced defense of Trump’s handling of classified information in his meeting with the Russians. He said the “premise” of the Post’s story — which he did not specify, but presumably he meant the notion that Trump’s disclosure of that information could damage our relationship with a crucial ally in the Middle East — was false. Many observers (at least in my Twitter feed at the time) thought McMaster’s parsing was just a roundabout way of confirming the story’s details. But the premise matters: We do not get such detailed reports of every meeting between a president and representatives of a foreign government, but it’s extremely unlikely this was the first time a president shared any kind of classified information in such a meeting. The premise of the story is that this particular sharing was inappropriate because the foreign government in question was Russia’s (with the attendant concerns both of Russia not really being our ally, and the existing controversy over Trump’s ties to Moscow); because the information in question was of a very high classification level; but most of all, because it could compromise our future ability to obtain important intelligence from our allies. If McMaster is right that the last part is incorrect, that’s an important distinction. (Though it must be said that other reporting suggests that Israel is not happy about Trump’s disclosure, which contradicts McMaster.)The question going forward is whether McMaster or other key administration figures will continue to offer such defenses. If the people in the room for these conversations and decisions view them as starkly different from what news outlets are reporting, particularly based on anonymous sources, voicing their views may reshape the narrative about the president. But if they cannot in good conscience counter reports Trump is behaving inappropriately, or even if they simply give up hope their defenses will make a difference, that will undermine the administration greatly.
There are others, but these are plenty for now. As I wrote the other day, any given story line during the Trump era is subject to substantial change within 24 hours. If these questions are answered in Trump’s favor, he just might weather this storm. If not, well …