While the legal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election as well as a new investigation to determine if President Trump obstructed justice by firing former FBI Director James Comey will likely not be decided for months, the president continues to characterize both investigations as “phony” and a “WITCH HUNT.”
Based on a recent tweet, the president even attacked his own deputy attorney general.
Despite rumors suggesting that Trump is considering firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “reassured the Senate Committee on Appropriations on Tuesday that he — not the president — is the only official empowered to dismiss special counsel Robert Mueller…” according to Salon (June 13).
Early in his career, Rosenstein was an associate independent counsel for Ken Starr. After his appointment as deputy attorney general, I asked one former DOJ attorney and a former Starr associate independent counsel about his character. Both vouched for his integrity. In fact, the former associate told me, “Out of all the individuals in the independent counsel’s office that I served with, I would say that Rod possessed the greatest amount of integrity.”
But let’s return to the central issue – Comey v. Trump: who are we to believe?
Wall Street Journal columnist and former speechwriter to Ronald Regan, Peggy Noonan writes (June 8) of Comey. “It is not strange for an official to take notes after a meeting or conversation with a president, and it is wholly understandable when the president is unusual, the circumstances heightened, the relationship potentially contentious.
“It begs credulity,” Noonan continues, “that Mr. Comey would have tapped out elaborate fictions in a one-man note-taking plot to bring down a president. And he must have known it possible the calls and meeting were taped, in which case the contents would be used to destroy him if he lied.”
Remember Senate testimony from Nixon’s White House Counsel John Dean during Watergate?
Dean was relying on notes he had taken after his meetings with Nixon. In one memorable moment, Dean testified that he told the president that “there is a cancer close to the president and it is growing…”
While Nixon endlessly denied accusations that he had any knowledge of Watergate, the existence of Oval Office tapes proved Dean’s notes to be accurate, ultimately leading to Nixon’s resignation.
Despite suggesting that their may indeed be recordings of conversations between Comey and the president, Trump continues to delay telling the public if tapes exist. The president can clear this up with a simple “Yes” or “No” but chooses not to.
At Comey’s Senate hearing, Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein asked Comey perhaps the most relevant question of all.
FEINSTEIN: “…why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you’?”
COMEY: “It’s a great question. Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just… took it in. And the only thing I could think to say, because I was playing in my mind, because I could (ph) remember every word he said — I was playing in my mind, what should my response be? And that’s why I very carefully chose the words. … Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance but that — that was — that’s how I conducted myself. I — I hope I’ll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.”
Comey’s response doesn’t come off as stiff or contrived. He sounds sincere and honest in his self-appraisal. In terms of his reaction to Trump, it reminded me of a conversation I had with a former Ken Starr prosecutor.
After carefully preparing questions and sources in advance, I asked about a legal decision made in the Secret Service issue of the Lewinsky investigation.
Responding to a quote from a judge at the time, this former prosecutor said, “Look that’s not what I said, … maybe we should stop talking. I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”
I was so stunned at his reaction to what appeared to be a logical question, asked in a non-confrontational manner, that I was literally speechless. I kept thinking, did I say something wrong? How should I respond?
I never got a chance to apologize for any misunderstanding as he abruptly ended the conversation.
I immediately documented all this in my notes, then drafted a letter, apologizing for any misunderstanding. I included the original copy of my questions, highlighting the question I asked and offered him a chance to respond in writing. I never heard from him again.
Clearly, former Director Comey understands from his own experience the importance of conversations given the circumstances and his own suspicions surrounding Trump, as Noonan points out.
Prior to his Senate testimony, Comey says he met with Special Counsel Mueller to go over what he could say in an open setting and what he could not say. Mueller and Comey, both former FBI directors, understand the importance of not compromising an on-going investigation. If it becomes necessary, and I think it’s reasonable to assume, Mueller will likely interview each of the individuals at the FBI to whom Comey shared his memos and thoughts about his encounters with Trump.
On the other side of the equation we have a president who is clearly obsessed – based on his own twitter remarks – with his innocence in the Russia investigation, so much so that he now questions the validity of his own appointed deputy attorney general, as well as the integrity of Robert Mueller.
“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt.” – June 16, 2017
“You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people! #MAGA” – June 15, 2017
However, one hour before that tweet suggesting the special counsel was “conflicted,” Trump tweeted:
“They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice.”
“Trump has a point,” Politifact writes (June 16), “in that none of the investigations have made public any hard proof that Trump colluded with Russia during the presidential election — if there is any hard proof. But that doesn’t mean the Russia story is ‘phony’ overall. The investigations encompass much more than just overt collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“They are looking,” Politifact says, “at whether Trump campaign associates may have been unwitting agents on Russia’s behalf, as well as Russia’s actions absent any assistance from American political actors. They could also dig into criminal activity unrelated to Russia or the election that they uncover during the course of their investigative work, such as unlawful financial dealings.”
What is Nixon former counsel John Dean’s reaction to President Trump?
In an interview with The Los Angeles Times (June 1), “Dean firmly believes the truth about any misdeeds, if they took place, will come out much sooner than the many years it took for the full nature of the Watergate scandal to be revealed.
“Unlike Nixon, ‘Trump is surprisingly candid about himself,’ Dean said. The president’s admission that he fired FBI Director James B. Comey to relieve the pressure of his investigation into Russia and the 2016 election was, to Dean’s mind, ‘basically confessing obstruction of justice.’ ”
While we must wait for a final legal determination by the special counsel regarding possible collusion and obstruction of justice, a large ethical cloud continues to hang over this president, and it is only getting larger, due to Trump himself.
At this point in time, Trump has several liabilities against him:
– First, his track record with the truth is far below that of any modern-day president. Of 413 statements checked (as of June 18), Politifact found that only 17 percent of those statements are “True” or “Mostly True.”
– Second, Comey made clear to the Senate committee that several Trump campaign aides are under investigation including Carter Page, Boris Epshteyn, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Michael Caputo, Michael Flynn, Roger Stone and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. Borrowing Peggy Noonan’s phrase, “it begs credulity” to believe that Trump was/is completely ignorant of any of their ties with Russia.
– Third, he contradicted himself on the reason he fired Comey. Regardless of DOJ’s recommendation, Trump admitted to NBC’s Lester Holt that it was because of “this Russia thing.”
– Fourth, he spends an excessive amount of time on Twitter not only arguing his innocence, but falsely claiming that the Russia investigation is “phony.” In one 48-hour period (June 15-16), Trump tweets 5 times that the Russia story is a “WITCH HUNT,” “phony,” “Fake news,” “zero proof,” “phony story,” and “now they go for obstruction of justice.”
– Fifth, as brought out by Maine Independent Senator Angus King on NBC’s Meet The Press, (June 18), in all 9 interactions with the president, Comey was never asked by Trump about the Russian investigation itself. He’s only interested in his own possible accountability and curbing the investigation into former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn.
As to who is telling the truth between Mr. Comey and Trump, as of this moment, Mr. Comey currently carries the greater degree of trust.