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Other View: What we learned, and didn't, from Comey

We learned a few things from former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on Thursday morning before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

— Earlier reports about Comey’s memos about his interactions with President Donald Trump left open the possibility that he had made such notes throughout his career. This morning, he said that he did not write the memos as a matter of course but as a preemptive defense against the possibility that Trump would lie about those interactions.

— We got an on-the-record confirmation by Comey that Trump had indeed asked for his loyalty — something that was promptly disputed by a source who spoke off the record to the Associated Press. Comey also stood by the claim that Trump had suggested that Comey abandon the FBI’s investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. When asked whether he had done that “in any way, shape, or form,” Trump has previously said no.

— Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is under criminal investigation, Comey confirmed.

— Comey said that he expected Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian intervention in the 2016 elections, and that Comey could not explain in open hearings all the reasons he expected that recusal. That’s a major blow to Sessions’s credibility, and a spur to further investigations by Congress and journalists.

— Everything Comey has said is consistent with one theory of the case: Trump believes that he is guiltless of any collusion with Russia and was frustrated that Comey wouldn’t say there was no evidence he had done anything wrong.

— Comey reported that Trump had encouraged him to find out if anyone in his orbit had acted improperly with the Russians.

— We can infer from Comey’s refusal to comment in open session about the “Steele dossier” that he does not (and that the FBI at the time Comey departed did not) consider it entirely discredited.

— Comey doesn’t have good answers to some questions: If he felt it was necessary to issue a public statement that Clinton had not knowingly broken any laws by setting up and using her server, why couldn’t he issue a public statement saying Trump was not under a criminal investigation? Why didn’t he push back more vigorously if he felt Trump was trying to corrupt the FBI? After he was fired, why did he have a friend leak Comey’s memo recounting a meeting with Trump instead of just releasing it himself? Why can’t he make the memo public now?

— Comey confirmed reports that Loretta Lynch, the attorney general at the tail end of the Obama administration, had told him to refer to the FBI’s inquiry into Clinton’s private server as a “matter” rather than as an “investigation.”

What we didn’t get from the public part of these hearings is anything that will cause pro-Trump or anti-Trump partisans to reconsider their basic positions. Republican defenders are still able to make four accurate points in Trump’s defense: 1) The president has the legal authority to order the FBI to shut down an investigation. 2) What the president actually said was more ambiguous than “Shut down this investigation.” 3) We are nowhere close to having proof of the elements of the crime of obstruction of justice. 4) Trump may not have been aware of how unusual it is for a president to exert pressure on the FBI about its investigations.

Granting all of those points, could Trump’s interference nonetheless add up to a “high crime and misdemeanor” that warrants impeachment? The Constitution doesn’t spell out the criteria, leaving open the possibility that a presidential act (or acts) can warrant his removal without violating any provision of statutory law or the Constitution. It does, however, explicitly provide the procedures for removing a president, and those procedures require a very high degree of political consensus before they can be used.

We are very far from having any such consensus. But there’s also no consensus for the White House position that there’s nothing to see here and we should all just move on. The Comey hearing was an episode in a show that isn’t going to be canceled for a good long while.


Columns
OTHER VIEW
Other View: As Comey testifies, remember the bigger picture

The following editorial appears on Bloomberg View:

As former FBI Director James Comey testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee, it’s useful to bear two things in mind: What he’s describing isn’t normal. And it isn’t going away.

In a written statement released before his appearance, Comey depicted a disturbing sequence of events related to the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. President Donald Trump repeatedly asked Comey to pledge his loyalty, requested that he state publicly that Trump wasn’t under investigation, and suggested that he drop a probe into Michael Flynn, the erstwhile national security adviser. Comey declined on all counts, and Trump fired him not long afterward.

By itself, this looks like another inappropriate-but-maybe-not-technically-illegal incident of the kind Trump specializes in. Considered in a larger context, though, it starts to look like something worse.

Trump’s interactions with Comey are part of a pattern. The president reportedly made similar requests of Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence; Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency; and Mike Pompeo, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. When questioned Wednesday on the topic at a hearing, Coats and Rogers resorted to elaborate euphemism. Trump’s administration exerted similar pressure on officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees, asking them to rebut negative media reports about the Russia investigation.

If it is satisfied that Comey’s testimony is true — and his credibility is certainly higher than Trump’s — Congress would be within its rights to formally censure the president over it. That would still leave the questions of what to do about Russia’s interference in the election and why Trump is so keen to suppress the investigation into it.

That interference is beyond dispute. Its efforts included a sophisticated propaganda and social engineering operation. It conducted espionage against campaigns, lobbyists and think tanks. Its operatives stole and published politically damaging emails, accessed state and local electoral boards, and targeted election officials with malicious software.

Trump has insisted that none of this is worth investigating. That may be because U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that it was intended to help him win. It may be because the FBI is probing ties between his associates and Russian agents.

Which suggests a final concern. Much about Trump’s relationship to Russia remains inexplicable. Against all advice, his administration has pushed to end sanctions on the country. His son-in-law and top adviser held secret meetings with Russian officials and tried to set up a secret communications link with the Kremlin. Trump himself has dabbled in Russian propaganda, effusively praised Russia’s president, and shared highly sensitive intelligence with Russian officials in the Oval Office. There were laughs all around.

Congress has an obligation to continue investigating this matter. The FBI must determine if any crimes were committed. And the president? He must accept that these probes will continue, whether he likes it or not.


Columns
OTHER VIEW
Other View: Comey's testimony was a net plus for Trump

It is never a good day when a former FBI director calls you a liar, but considering the high stakes and all that could have gone wrong, James Comey’s testimony Thursday was a net plus for President Donald Trump. In a way, Comey did a lot of what Trump had always wanted him to do—he confirmed the president was never under investigation and he did not say the president had committed any crimes. There is no defending Trump’s treatment of Comey. It was clumsy, naive and smarmy. But it did not even come close to being criminal. And regardless of what the Democrats and their allies in the media will howl about, the real story here is that Comey’s testimony strengthens the president’s ultimate case.

Up until Thursday, it was easy for Republicans and Democrats to take aim at Comey—and rightfully so. He stumbled in handling the Hillary Clinton debacle and he stayed in the spotlight with Trump for too long.

But Comey’s testimony today made clear that the former FBI director did not find Trump’s supposed remarks made over the phone, at a private dinner, or in the Oval Office as constituting obstruction of justice. Liberals will have you believe otherwise, but they must be disappointed that their silver bullet seems to be melting.

Regarding the Michael Flynn investigation, Comey testified Trump said, “I hope you can let this go.” Had Comey believed the president obstructed justice by making that statement, steps would have been taken to immediately pursue the matter. But, as Comey confirmed, Trump was never under investigation during his tenure at the FBI.

After each encounter with the president, Comey went about his business, thereby confirming the president had not crossed a legal line. To the usual suspects on the left, that does not matter. It is more important, from their perspective at least, to keep the story alive and to tarnish the president. Initially, Comey seemed happy to oblige.

But, as Comey made clear in his prepared statement, at the time he left his post he was not aware of evidence to suggest Trump colluded with the Russian government. No investigation, not from the FBI or any congressional committee has established otherwise.

Likewise, the fact that the directors of national intelligence and the National Security Agency testified Wednesday they were never pressured to do anything inappropriate with respect to ongoing investigations should be enough to confirm that there was no crime.

The only collusion revealed from last year’s campaign was the shocker that former Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch had done some wordsmithing for the Clinton campaign. She is no Frank Luntz, but Lynch instructed Comey to call the investigation into Clinton a “matter,” not an investigation. If that’s not trying to influence an election, I don’t know what is. Everyone suspected Lynch was eager to keep her job in a would-be Clinton administration, but no one knew that she would go as far as to demand the FBI use gentle language on Clinton’s behalf.

With a special counsel afoot, everything is fair game. The Democrats will argue that even if there was no criminal collusion, someone—namely the president—must have obstructed justice in trying to suppress the investigation of the non-crime. Good luck with that. Between Comey’s testimony and that of the nation’s top national security professionals, it will be impossible for anyone, even the most determined anti-Trump Democrat, to reconstruct Comey’s testimony as evidence of criminal activity.

Regardless of what Democrats would have you believe, the president still has the advantage of being innocent. He is lucky to have not squandered that advantage. At some point, the search for a crime will run its course and fade away, but it is up to the White House to be surefooted and keep mistakes to a minimum. Is it possible the president has learned a lesson?

If Trump can let the hearing settle, compartmentalize the whole matter and let the independent counsel do his work, the Russia investigation and all its subsidiaries will conclude without evidence of a crime. Everyone in the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill should look at Thursday’s hearing as a win. They should quiet down, get back to work, and let the Democrats aimlessly flail around Washington. It will not be pleasant, but it won’t be deadly.