Like everything else in politics today, ousted FBI Director James Comey’s written testimony about his interactions with President Trump is likely to produce Rorschach-like reactions. If you think Trump has done nothing wrong, you’re inclined to focus on certain parts of the remarks Comey prepared for his appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, which the committee published on Wednesday. If you’re just killing time until the impeachment proceedings can begin, you probably only processed other sections of the document.
As your resident Trump-is-neither-Satan-nor-a-savior commentator, allow me to point out the items from Comey’s brief that merit everyone’s attention (listed in order of appearance in the testimony).
1. This whole episode began, at least, as a counter-intelligence investigation, not a criminal one: Comey first met with Trump in order to brief him in relation to the famous “Russia dossier” that included all sorts of sordid allegations about the then-president-elect and his team. Right off the bat, Comey writes that the allegations in the dossier, whose existence was first reported in the days before the 2016 election, were “salacious and unverified” as of his Jan. 6 “defensive briefing” with Trump. That counter-intelligence mission that ensued was the basis for the FBI’s inquiry.
2. Comey told Trump three times he was not personally under investigation: The first time was during that Jan. 6 meeting. Comey writes that he hadn’t necessarily planned to say so, but “based on President-Elect Trump’s reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance.” Comey further assured Trump he wasn’t personally under investigation on Jan. 27 and March 30. Trump of course referred to these “three separate occasions” in his termination letter to Comey on May 9.
3. Comey was not in the habit of filing written records about his one-on-one conversations with President Obama, but he began doing so after that first meeting with Trump: Comey confirms in his written testimony the existence of the “memos” that became the basis for news reports about his interactions with Trump. One might reasonably speculate this was an early sign he recognized a qualitative difference in how he would be dealing with Trump, for whatever reason. He also says (later, in his recounting of a Jan. 27 meeting) he shared the information in these memos with senior FBI leadership.
4. Comey believed Trump wanted him to feel obligated to the president for his job, and “loyal” to him: His second one-on-one meeting with Trump was a White House dinner on Jan. 27. Although Comey writes that he had, by then, told Trump on two occasions he planned to remain in his job, he notes that Trump raised the subject again. His “instincts” told him Trump was trying to “have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly … A few moments later, the President said, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.’ 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 in silence.”
Comey writes that he eventually tried to emphasize the importance of the FBI’s independence and how it ultimately serves the president’s interests, too. But the subject of loyalty came up again:
“He then said, ‘I need loyalty.’ I replied, ‘You will always get honesty from me.’ He paused and then said, ‘That’s what I want, honest loyalty.’ I paused, and then said, ‘You will get that from me.’ As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term — honest loyalty — had helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect.”
Whether you see this as strictly inappropriate or merely clumsy probably depends on what you already think of Trump. I tend to think his clumsiness born of inexperience led him to do something inappropriate — meaning his inexperience explains what happened, but doesn’t justify it.
5. Trump really wanted the FBI to clear him of the allegations regarding Russia: Comey’s recounting of the Jan. 27 dinner was the first time he raises Trump’s impatience with the “salacious” allegations against him in the public arena, and his insistence Comey clarify publicly that he was not personally being investigated:
“He said he was considering ordering me to investigate the alleged incident to prove it didn’t happen. I replied that he should give that careful thought because it might create a narrative that we were investigating him personally, which we weren’t, and because it was very difficult to prove a negative. He said he would think about it and asked me to think about it.”
This impatience would become an increasing theme leading up to Comey’s firing: Trump made similar comments on March 30 and on April 11.
6. Trump did indicate he wanted the FBI to stop investigating Michael Flynn: Comey writes that after a Feb. 14 meeting with a number of people in the Oval Office (including Attorney General Jeff Sessions), Trump dismissed everyone else and then told him, “I want to talk about Mike Flynn,” who had resigned as national security adviser the day before. Comey says Trump told him Flynn “‘is a good guy and has been through a lot.’ He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, ‘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.’ I replied only that ‘he is a good guy.'”
7. Comey did not, however, think Trump wanted all investigations regarding Russia shut down: If you’re inclined to see that request as obstruction of justice, you must also recognize the limits of what Comey thought Trump wanted him to stop looking into: “I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign. I could be wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn’s departure and the controversy around his account of his phone calls.” Although it’s possible Trump was worried the Flynn investigation might lead back to himself eventually, Comey’s remarks don’t go there. (I expect we’ll hear follow-up questions about this from senators on Thursday.) Nevertheless, Comey calls the request “very concerning.”
8. Comey felt sufficiently uncomfortable about his interactions with Trump to ask Sessions to prevent them from happening in the future: After that Feb. 14 meeting, Comey writes that “I told the AG that what had just happened — him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind — was inappropriate and should never happen.” He did not, however, mention the president’s request to “let this go” about Flynn, because he expected Sessions to recuse himself from the “Russia-related investigations,” as he did about two weeks later.
9. Trump believed the Russia allegations were hampering his ability to act as president: On March 30, Comey writes, Trump told him the investigation was “a cloud” and asked Comey what he could do to “lift the cloud.” Comey responded that a thorough investigation was in the president’s best interest and notes Trump “agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him.”
Trump made similar comments on April 11, asking Comey to “get out” the fact he wasn’t personally under investigation, and thereby lift “the cloud.” He also made comments about having been “very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” Comey writes that he didn’t know what Trump meant by “that thing.”
Again, what you see in all this is probably based on what you think about Trump. For my part, I think the testimony portrays Trump as terribly, and arguably dangerously, inept in these situations. But Comey does not, in my view, produce a compelling reason to think Trump should be forced from office.
The Flynn conversation is probably the most damaging, as it indicates he wanted the FBI to stop an active investigation, but even there Comey stops well short of saying Trump ordered him to do anything. He expressed his opinion — clumsily, and inadvisedly — but Comey’s written testimony, anyway, does not portray it as more than that.
After that is the “loyalty” conversation. Here too, Trump was clumsy and seemed to stumble his way into saying something he should not have said. But not something that undercuts his fitness for office. Ineptitude is not an impeachable offense.
Finally there’s the question of whether Trump was out of line to fire Comey. Trump has been all over the place on his reasons for firing Comey, from citing in his termination letter the recommendations of Sessions and the deputy AG to saying in an interview he planned to fire Comey regardless. If we were to judge his action strictly on what Comey writes here about his interactions with Trump, though, we might reasonably conclude Trump fired Comey not for refusing to shut down any investigations, but for refusing to tell the public the investigations weren’t about him. We might reasonably conclude that Trump’s linkage, in Comey’s telling of their April 11 conversation, of “the cloud” over his administration and the question of “loyalty” meant that he thought a loyal FBI director would act to lift such an unnecessary cloud.
Those conclusions are subject to change based on what else Comey says Thursday, but as things stand I think that’s about as far as one can justifiably take it.