James Comey’s sworn testimony Thursday did not, by itself, heighten President Trump’s risks of confronting obstruction-of-justice charges or articles of impeachment.
But it did inflame ferocious new rounds of political mud-slinging in the wake of Comey’s vivid account of a president who pressed him to conclude a federal probe; privately and improperly went to bat for a former White House adviser who is in serious legal jeopardy; and “defamed” Comey when he feared the FBI’s Russia investigation would damage him and stall his policy agenda.
Because Trump’s risks are political more than legal, the weight of Thursday’s testimony was impossible to gauge without knowing where multiple investigations and conclusions land. Richard Nixon’s abuses of power and the extensive documentation of his criminal intent and activities – disclosed by top aides and chronicled by secret tapes the president battled to withhold – ultimately led to his resignation.
But it was the erosion of support in Congress and his party’s exhaustion with the Watergate dramas that ended Nixon’s presidency before the Senate could move to convict him on articles of impeachment, which had been adopted by the House Judiciary Committee. Congress decided Nixon had misused the FBI, the CIA and the Internal Revenue Service, and hidden the evidence in a cover-up.
Nixon resigned on Aug. 8, 1974, after what the Washington Post called “two years of bitter public debate over the Watergate scandals.” He told the American people he was stepping down for the good of the country after recognizing he had lost “a strong enough political base in the Congress” to complete his second term.
If Trump on Thursday worried about the office of the presidency in addition to his reputational fate, he and his private counsel did not let on.
Special counsel Robert Mueller has broad powers in the future to seek sworn testimony from Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and top federal officials who discussed with the president elements of the Russia probe before or after Inauguration Day.
Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser and the president’s son-in-law, is a person of interest, according to federal investigators. NBC News reported Kushner agreed to meet with Senate Intelligence staff members in mid-June.
The expanded federal investigation remains in its early phase. What began with election interference by Russia mushroomed into possible Trump campaign ties to Moscow, domestic surveillance picked up at Trump Tower, possible White House “tapes,” Michael Flynn’s alleged susceptibility to Russian blackmail and potential misleading answers to federal investigators, a salacious and uncorroborated dossier about Trump’s behavior in Moscow as a businessman, and multiple administration firings since January.
Trump’s attorney Marc Kasowitz described his client’s primary defense to journalists Thursday but answered no questions. The president, asked by reporters for his reaction to Comey’s testimony, declined to comment during an afternoon White House event with mayors and governors.
The president feels “vindicated … with this public cloud removed,” the attorney added.
Two days of dramatic testimony ended, but investigators in the Senate and working under Mueller are juggling a complex counterintelligence probe, as well as potential evidence of criminal behavior.
While Trump avoided Twitter on Thursday, he counted on his counsel to deny he interfered with any federal investigation.
“The president never in form or substance directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone. … The president never suggested that Mr. Comey `let Flynn go,’” Kasowitz said during a brief appearance at the National Press Club a few blocks from the White House.
Kasowitz corroborated other Trump remarks quoted by Comey, while denying key portions of the former FBI director’s account of conversations with the president.
A White House spokeswoman said she did not know if the president had taped evidence to corroborate his own version of conversations with Comey.
The former FBI director told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that if Trump taped their conversations without his knowledge, he urged the president to disclose the audio. “I hope there are tapes,” he said. “I’ll consent to the release of them.”
A recurring point during Comey’s testimony was his concern that Trump would lie about their conversations, beginning with a get-together on Jan. 6 in Trump Tower before Trump was inaugurated. Comey said it was “the nature of the person (Trump),” and Trump’s reactions while discussing an uncorroborated dossier about the businessman that inspired the then-FBI director to create classified notes about the encounter the minute his FBI vehicle pulled away from the Manhattan office building.
“I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting,” he told senators. “So I thought it really important to document.”
After Comey was fired four months later, the president did not accurately describe their conversations to interviewers or to the public, Comey added.
Trump has earned a reputation as a fanciful storyteller, given to hyperbole and “alternative facts,” but even the president’s communications team struggles to sort through Trump’s whims, mistaken facts, and self-initiated adventures.
Since Trump tweeted a veiled threat on May 12 suggesting he might have “tapes” of his conversations with Comey, his White House spokespeople have been careful not to deny that their boss recorded conversations.
Kasowitz offered no new evidence to bolster the president’s version of events, which Comey and Trump both agree involved a collection of one-on-one meetings and private phone conversations.
Trump’s veracity is important to his political trajectory, particularly because he is not a lawyer and has no previous political or government experience. Bill Clinton, who taught constitutional law early in his career and considered himself an astute political strategist, got himself impeached by the House and needed every Democratic vote in the Senate to survive his misdeeds, which included lying under oath. President Clinton famously coined the oily phrase: “It depends on what the meaning of is is.”
Clinton professed his “regret” for his behavior, but later said he was proud of “what I had fought for in the impeachment battle.” The 42nd president turned a political impeachment drama into a political cause, blaming the Republican Party for his troubles and describing events as “my last great showdown with the forces I had opposed all my life.” Polls showed that a majority of Americans thought their lives were on the right track, and the GOP had overreached in trying to install Vice President Al Gore as president.
Trump’s counsel, as well as GOP surrogates who defended Trump this week, also railed against political forces they said are arrayed against the 45th president. They sought to define Comey’s behavior as politically motivated and not credible. As evidence of duplicity, they focused on his admitted clandestine disclosures to the news media about some of his private exchanges with the president.
Kasowitz accused Comey of “leaking … privileged communications” to the New York Times. The mention of “privileged” was a stretch, since the president has not invoked executive privilege, which protects confidential advice to a president. Comey appeared to share key information when he was no longer a federal official. Because Trump’s West Wing team is widely seen as the leakiest senior White House staff in modern history, Trump’s hand wringing about “privileged conversations” gained less traction than it might otherwise.
Comey testified that after his firing May 9, he asked a friend — a Columbia University professor — to read to the Times’ reporters an unclassified memo Comey created for his own files, describing Trump’s remarks about former National Security Adviser Flynn. Trump asked Flynn to resign on Feb. 13, but has repeatedly defended the retired general in public.
Comey testified he felt pressured by Trump to drop the investigation as it related to Flynn, whose legal vulnerabilities include whether he was truthful with federal officials.
Trump “did say to Mr. Comey, `General Flynn is a good guy. He’s been through a lot,’” Kasowitz told reporters, while denying the president met alone with Comey to encourage him to shut down the Flynn probe.
After Trump fired Comey (the president explained in a May interview he acted because of his worries about the Russia investigation), the former FBI director testified he began to hope the federal probe tied to Russia would shift to a special counsel, which it did with Mueller’s appointment on May 17.
Asked how the public should evaluate his version of events against the president’s descriptions, Comey said it was important to place a large frame around the puzzle.
“I think people should look at the whole body of my testimony,” he told senators. “I used to say to juries, and when I talked about a witness, `You can’t cherry-pick it.’ You can’t say, `I like these things he said, but on this, he’s a dirty, rotten liar.’”
If Trump didn’t look for an opportunity to pressure him to end the Flynn investigation, why did the president end an Oval Office meeting by shooing out the vice president, chief of staff, the attorney general and his son-in-law before speaking about Flynn, who he knew was still under investigation, with the FBI director?
“I’ve tried to be open and fair and transparent and accurate,” Comey said. And with any witness, even a president, “you look at consistency, track record, demeanor, [and] record over time,” he added.