Every week… EVERY week, the Trump administration has some controversy that sucks the air out of any meaningful legislative action in Washington. This week, it’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions. While I think it’s important to look at some of the clouds surrounding President Trump, I do not intend to ethically parse every controversy.
However, I believe last week’s Senate testimony from former FBI Director James Comey is particularly relevant for three reasons: Comey has spent decades as a U.S. attorney, including deputy attorney general under President George Bush and FBI Director under President Obama; his integrity has been well-regarded by both Republicans and Democrats; finally, his admission of taking notes after conversations beginning with then-President Elect Trump last November, has set the stage for a highly consequential debate as to who is telling the truth, not only between Trump and Comey, but as it relates to Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump associates’ ties to Russia.
Of all the claims, counter-claims, and bluster stemming from Comey’s testimony, and the response from Trump and his attorney, the most stunning response to all this came from House Speaker Paul Ryan and I quote:
“He’s just new to this.”
“I’m not saying it’s an acceptable excuse,” Ryan added. “It’s just my observation.”
Okay, here are my observations on the events of last week, beginning with 8 ethically-relevant points regarding responsibility and accountability from Comey’s testimony that stood out to me.
- Comey said that one of the reasons he initiated a press conference to discuss Secretary Clinton’s e-mail investigation was because Attorney General Loretta Lynch had asked him to refer to the issue as a “matter” not an “investigation.” That, coupled with Lynch’s tarmac meeting with former President Bill Clinton, caused Comey to conclude that Lynch had been compromised.
- The director had nine one-on-one conversations with President Trump and created contemporaneous notes of “nearly all of them… especially the ones that were substantive.” He then shared those notes with FBI leadership at that time. It is highly unusual and ethically troubling for a sitting president to have repeated contact with the head of a lead investigative agency regarding an investigation connected to that president.
After one phone conversation initiated by the president, Comey said he shared both the content and concerns he had with “…the deputy director, my chief of staff, the general counsel, the deputy director’s chief counsel and, I think, in a number of circumstances, the number three in the FBI, and a few of the conversations included the head of the national security branch, so that group of us that lead the FBI when it comes to national security.”
Clearly, all of these individuals could be called to testify not only before the Senate Intelligence committee but Special Counsel Robert Muller.
Why did Comey feel the need to take notes?
Of his initial meeting with Trump in New York, Comey said, “I was alone with the… soon to be president. I was talking about matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility and that relate to the…president-elect personally. I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document. .. and I’ve got to write it down in a very detailed way.
“I knew that there might come a day when I would need a record of what had happened, not just to defend myself, but to defend the FBI and — and our integrity as an institution and the independence of our investigative function.”
- Comey says he felt uncomfortable after Trump asked him to attend a White House meeting, along with others.
“… you’ve seen the picture of me walking across the Blue Room. And what the president whispered in my ear was, ‘I really look forward to working with you.’
“And that was just a few days before you were fired,” Senator Warner adds.
- The most disturbing meeting between Trump and Comey took place in the Oval office. After Trump asked AG Sessions, VP Pence and Counselor Jared Kushner to leave the room, Comey was alone with the president who wanted to discuss the Flynn investigation.
“In your estimation,” Senator Burr asked the former director, “was General Flynn, at that time, in serious legal jeopardy? And… do you sense that the president was trying to obstruct justice…?
“General Flynn,” Comey said, “at that point in time, was in legal jeopardy. There was an open FBI criminal investigation of his statements in connection with the Russian contacts and the contacts themselves.
“I don’t think it’s for me to say,” Comey added, “whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct. I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning, but that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel [Robert Muller] will work towards…”
- Why did Trump fire Comey after repeatedly telling him he was doing a good job?
First, there was Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein’s letter, and cover letter from AG Jeff Sessions, stating that it was due to Comey’s decision to go around former AG Lynch and publicly discuss the Clinton e-mail investigation.
Sessions had previously recused himself from all aspects of the Russian investigation due to his admitted conversations with Russian officials, but now un-recuses himself to recommend firing Comey. Sessions tried to explain this away in yesterday’s hearing, but the bottom line remains that any decision by Sessions regarding a man who leads an investigative agency that is actively investigating Russian interference should remain outside all decision making.
In Trump’s letter firing Comey, the president says he took the advice of both Rosenstein and Sessions. However, in a May 11 interview with NBC News Anchor Lester Holt, Trump gives a different reason.
“…regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey… in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself… ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’ ”
So, by the president’s own admission, the “recommendation” letters were purposely misleading.
- What about “this Russia thing”?
Comey told Senators, “There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever, the Russians interfered in our  election.”
Seventeen intelligence agencies conclusively support this fact.
Near the end of his testimony, Comey makes the most important point of all concerning Russia’s actions in the election:
“…it’s not a Republican thing or Democratic thing. It really is an American thing. They’re going to come for whatever party they choose to try and work on behalf of… They’re just about their own advantage. And they will be back.”
- In that Oval Office meeting, Trump asked Comey to “let this go,” referring to the Flynn investigation.
In a prepared statement that Comey submitted the day before his testimony, the former director writes, “The president then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, ‘He 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.’ ”
Once again, we have the president – in language that has been endlessly parsed – strongly suggest that the FBI director stop the Flynn investigation. My question to Senate Republicans: if the president has you alone in the Oval office, and he has previously discussed the issue by phone, what ELSE could, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go” mean?
- Why did Comey “leak” his personal memos on Trump conversations?
After Comey read the president’s May 12 tweet, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
“So, I asked my friend,” Comey said, ‘Make sure this gets out.’
The last time an FBI agent leaked significant information to the media was “Deep Throat,” ultimately revealed to be FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt. It’s interesting to speculate what would have happened had Felt not disclosed information about then-President Nixon’s illegal activities. However, neither Comey nor Felt leaked classified information.
Asked about the existence of tapes, Comey said, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
It’s important to remember throughout his entire Senate testimony that Comey, a former U.S. attorney, former deputy attorney general, knows full-well the consequences of lying under oath.
Friday: Trump’s side of the issue and my conclusions.