What's become clear is that James Comey has a martyr complex and Donald Trump is an amateur

Paul Ryan’s defence of Trump is, to put it lightly, less than reassuring: basically that he shouldn’t be blamed because he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing

David Usborne
Thursday 08 June 2017 18:23
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Who knows where these hearings will take the country. And where it will leave the President
Who knows where these hearings will take the country. And where it will leave the President

We watched in our millions and thus we became the jury. And, as in any case before a court – legal or of public opinion – the nature of our verdict will be determined in part by the personalities of the people before us. Who is believable? Who seems upright and who doesn’t?

The testimony of James Comey, erstwhile director of the FBI, was a wildly anticipated flashpoint in this rare drama. But there is a lot more of this to come. Indeed, the probe now being pursued by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russia’s alleged meddling in last year’s election may outlast Donald Trump’s first term. This thing will have more seasons than Game of Thrones.

But what’s the jury thinking now after Comey accused the President of speaking “lies, plain and simple” about him and his former colleagues at the agency? After he admitted he took notes after all communications with him because of “the nature of the person”? The nature of the leader of the free world. The notes he felt compelled to take, because, in his words, “I was honestly concerned he might lie”? (You begin to see why the ratings for this were high.)

What’s the jury thinking after Comey admitted to having been left “stunned” by Trump expressing the “hope” he could help make an FBI investigation of Michael Flynn, his former National Security Advisor, just go away?

Points of interpretation matter a great deal too, especially when it comes to the most salient question of the hour: did Trump do something that could be termed an “obstruction of justice” when he took Comey aside after an Oval Office cabal in mid-February and made his Flynn request? It is why some liken this to Watergate, which was as much about the cover-up as the crime.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump told Comey, according to Comey’s own account of it. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Republicans on the committee, like James Risch of Idaho, tried to run defence here. Telling someone you hope they might do something is not the same as telling them they must. Is it?

But this moment in the morning’s open session on the Hill – a closed one followed, with us, the jury, excluded – was key, surely. “Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offence, where they said or thought they hoped for an outcome?” Risch asked. “I don’t know well enough to answer,” Comey replied. “The reason I keep saying his words is I took it as a direction.”

He took it as a direction. A direction, moreover, from the President, no less, his boss. The entire country’s boss. Comey had another point. Why, if he wasn’t about to edge into inappropriate territory – call it that for now – had the President requested that everyone else leave the Oval Office before broaching this with Comey? Those told to leave included Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. “I mean, this is a President of the United States with me alone saying I hope this,” he noted. “I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.”

Time for a commercial break, please. So much to discuss, so much to debate. Doesn’t it seem odd to you? Keeping Comey back, making that request when they were all alone? Or we could have changed channels. Elsewhere on the Hill, the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, was telling reporters, in effect, that the important thing to remember here is that the American President is still a rank amateur. So there can’t be any crimes. Trump, he said, was, “new at government”, and he “probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols” about the proper distance between the FBI and the White House, he offered. No, this wasn’t the Comedy Channel.

We know what Trump thinks of Comey. The day after firing him he called him a “nut job” to, of all people, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, who was visiting him in the Oval Office. A more erudite version of his being sacked came from Comey’s lips. Asked repeatedly by the committee why he thought he’d been fired, he finally offered a Thomas Beckett invocation. It had to come. “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Which makes Trump King Henry II.

Ryan’s defence of Trump hardly makes him look better. He’d be fine as leader of some other country perhaps, where independence of the judiciary isn’t a thing. Where nods, winks, back-scratching and arm-twisting is normal practice. But this is America and impeding an investigation into what happened between your election campaign and a foreign foe tends to be taken seriously. And most Americans would probably prefer less sloppiness in the Oval Office.

But not everyone is convinced by Comey either. If he was made to wriggle it was when he admitted that the reason the press got hold so quickly of the memo he’d written about that Oval Office encounter was because he had leaked it. He said he woke up in the middle of the night and realised he had to. Except he didn’t leak it; he asked a professor friend of his in New York to do that shifty business for him. Why? Because he didn’t want to encourage reporters camped at the end of his driveway. It would have been like feeding “seagulls at the beach”, he said.

And Comey has a bit of a martyr thing going. Feeling sorry for him is a bit of a stretch, even for Democrats who can’t abide the President, but can’t forgive Comey for dropping that last-minute bomb at the end of last year’s election saying he was reopening the probe into Hillary Clinton’s emailing habits and only saying of the eve of voting that there was nothing new there after all.

So the jury is a bit lost. Was it entertained at least? By the Shakespearean intrigue of it all, possibly. But it’s desultory for the country also. Plenty of Americans are plain embarrassed by it all. And, like we said, we have so much further to go, with Mueller and the different Congressional panels really only just getting started.

What was that other thing Comey said? “Sometimes when you start turning over rocks”, you find things not related to the original criminal investigation. We have lots of rocks to go and who knows where this will take the country. And where it will leave Trump.

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