James Comey’s testimony reveals that Donald Trump is a businessman who doesn’t understand how to be a President

Comey was dismissed because Trump didn’t feel he was ‘his’ man. You can do that sort of thing as a CEO; you can’t really do it, as President, with the director of the FBI

Mary Dejevesky
Thursday 08 June 2017 17:23
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James Comey: Trump administration 'defamed' me and FBI with 'lies'

This was widely billed as the first time since Watergate that all of Washington stopped to watch a Congressional hearing. That is strictly true. But the last time that Washington – and much of the United States – abandoned work to watch a real-life political spectacular was in September, 1998, when President Bill Clinton was shown giving his grand jury testimony on the sordid matter of his relations with Monica Lewinsky.

James Comey’s appearance before the Senate intelligence committee was an infinitely more straitlaced occasion, while still fitting into this all-American tradition of high political drama – a few hours when the fate of a President, and the presidency, is at stake.

There were several crucial points to be clarified when 6-foot-8 Comey stood to swear that oh-so-familiar oath to speak the truth, the whole truth, etc, at the start. But they all boiled down to one. Had the President, in the former FBI director’s view tried to exert undue – unconstitutional – pressure on the holder of a job that had by definition to be non-partisan.

Comey: I took Trump's request to drop Flynn probe as a direction

That question broke down into four specifics. Was it true that Donald Trump had tried to stop an FBI investigation into his former National Security Adviser, General Mike Flynn? Was it true that he had tried to halt the bigger, overarching investigation into allegations about Russian interference in the US election? Did Trump put pressure on him to state publicly that he, the President, was not under investigation? And was Comey’s refusal essentially to play ball the reason why he had been so summarily fired as director of the FBI?

Comey’s opening statement, like his replies to Senators’ questions, was a model of clarity, and he answered the first two of those questions fairly categorically. Yes, Comey believed, Trump had tried to get him to abandon the investigation about Flynn’s contacts with Russia, though the request was couched as a suggestion to “let it go”. Obviously, this is not what a President ought to be doing. Indeed, when that claim became public, I found it one of the most damaging revelations to have emerged from the short, action-packed Trump presidency so far.

To the second question, though, Comey’s answer was an almost unqualified No. In his view, Trump had not tried to interfere in the bigger Russian investigation in any way.

It is worth quoting exactly what he said in his statement: “I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December. 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 ... Regardless, it was very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.”

If Comey had felt, or noted in some way, that Trump had even signalled, let alone actually tried to stall, the broader investigation, that would have meant far bigger trouble for the President – as it would have amounted to a direct attempt to subvert the judicial process and so threatened a key constitutional check on the executive. The parallels with Watergate, and the break-in and the cover-up, would have been evident. Unless there was conclusive evidence to the contrary, Donald Trump’s presidency could well have been stuttering to a close, barely months after it began.

It can be argued that Trump’s apparent attempt to halt the investigation into Flynn was just as serious. After all, the principle is essentially the same. In Comey’s testimony, however, it did not come across quite like that, even if a competent barrister could surely make the case in a court of law. It felt different, first, because Comey refused to act on the signal; he absorbed the point, but did not halt the investigation and did not pass the request on to any of those involved. It felt different, too, because of the way Comey recounted it, in what amounts to the minutes he took of his one-on-one meetings with Donald Trump.

These minutes, as set out in his opening statement – vivid and terse as they are – afford a considerable insight into the way Trump operates. This is probably not what Comey primarily intended. He wrote down his account after each meeting, he made clear under questioning, largely because he anticipated an eventual need to defend himself and feared that Trump – might “lie”. As the committee noted, this was quite something to say about a US President.

Now it is possible to regard Comey’s observations about Trump as a straight-down-the-line indictment of his integrity, and in many ways they are. But they also highlight crucial differences in the way a wayward CEO might behave, and what is expected of a US President. Comey judged from Trump’s repeated requests, one-on-one, for “loyalty”, that he was being asked (coerced?) to enter into a patronage relationship. It was not stated outright, but that was his abiding impression.

Something similar might apply to Trump’s signal to drop the Flynn investigation, on the grounds that Flynn was “a good guy”. Personal loyalty, to Trump, is clearly a prime consideration – as it surely was to him in business - something he demanded from all his subordinates. His mistake was to regard the FBI director in that light. Was that a deliberate violation, or did it reflect naivety, ignorance even, of how a President should behave? And if the latter, is this something that Trump will learn?

A similar conclusion might also be drawn in relation to the last two questions – Trump’s repeated requests to Comey to state that he was not personally under investigation (for inappropriate ties to Russia) – and the reason for his dismissal. Trump appears to have fretted about speculation that he was personally under FBI investigation, believing it cast a restricting shadow over his presidency. Again, that could be seen as more the response of a CEO, than of a President, who would accept that he and the FBI were necessarily separate.

As for why he lost his job, Comey speculated to the committee that it was because Trump felt that the broad Russia investigation was taking too long and, again, constraining his presidency. And this was indeed one of several explanations Trump gave at various points. The real answer, though, might be that Comey was dismissed for the simple reason that Trump was unhappy with him generally, because he didn’t feel he was “his” man. You can do that sort of thing as the autocratic head of a business; you can’t really do it, as President, with the director of the FBI.

So the question recurs: is Trump quite simply unsuited to occupy the White House, or will he come to understand what power he has, and how to use it? Once again, with the Comey hearing, as with the blizzard of executive orders, as with the court challenges, as with the rise and fall of Mike Flynn, we are watching not just high political drama, but the fundamentals of the US Constitution being tested. That admirably succinct document has held up pretty well for more than two centuries; there is no reason to believe that it will suddenly prove inadequate in 2017.

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