James Comey, former FBI Director, is testifying before Congress on Russia, Donald Trump, and how the two may or may not be related.
Much has been made of James Comey in recent months. When he was still Director of the FBI, he raised concerns about Hillary Clinton’s now infamous private email server. The agency’s subsequent investigation into Clinton’s email scandal, including an eleventh-hour reopening of the inquiry, likely contributed to her loss in the 2016 election.
Comey therefore became something of a villain in progressive circles. Perhaps, people reasoned, we would have elected Clinton to the highest office in the land, rather than an unqualified and boorish Trump.
However, his ongoing testimony before Congress is expected to reveal interesting and possibly damning information. While the White House had previously weighed the option of blocking Comey’s testimony, it has since stepped back. Now, Comey’s words reveal a presidential administration that seems to be taking its paranoia and subterfuge straight from the Nixon era.
Russia, Trump, and Comey: some background
Following the November election, multiple sources claimed that Trump owed his win in part to Russian interference. Hackers reportedly released documents that were only harmful to Democrats. Others stated that Russia had a dossier full of kompromat on Trump, compromising information that included claims of embarrassing activities in a Moscow hotel.
Perhaps most worrisome, numerous persons connected to Trump have even been in contact with high-level Russian officials. These include the current Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and even presidential son-in-law and top advisor Jared Kushner. The fact that many of the people involved failed to disclose the extent of their contacts proved especially worrisome. So far, only Michael Flynn has paid the price with his job.
Even when some of them attempted to escape scrutiny through loopholes and technicalities, suspicion remains. Between all of the allegations and the metaphorical mustache-twirling, it’s hard to believe that something isn’t happening. Perhaps John Oliver said it best when he called this whole affair “Stupid Watergate”.
Then James Comey re-entered the scene. It soon became clear that Comey, despite his actions in the email affair, was no fan of Trump. He even attempted to blend into some curtains in the White House Blue Room in order to avoid the President’s attention. Things did not get better for Comey when he met with the President, however. He wrote a series of memos after their meetings, which were distributed to his aides at the FBI.
In these documents, he claimed that Trump attempted to extract a pledge of loyalty from Comey. He also hinted that Comey should let the Flynn affair die down without any federal scrutiny. Comey made it clear that he would remain impartial. Shortly thereafter, he was fired by Trump.
The Congressional testimony
Now, Comey is testifying in front of a very interested Senate Intelligence Committee. The Committee has been conducting an ongoing investigation into Russia-related claims since the early days of the Trump presidency.
In a prepared opening statement, Comey described multiple conversations between himself and Trump concerning the investigations.
Comey also described the complicated and delicate nature of counterintelligence investigations. Such investigations can focus on individuals who are “witting or unwitting agents” of a foreign power. He continued:
"In that context, prior to the January 6 meeting, I discussed with the FBI’s leadership team whether I should be prepared to assure President-Elect Trump that we were not investigating him personally…. During our one-on-one meeting at Trump Tower, based on President-Elect Trump’s reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance."
During the hearing itself, he expanded upon his remarks. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” he said, when it was suggested that Trump may have recorded their private conversations. If they exist, such recordings would presumably corroborate the contents of Comey’s memos and testimony.
He said that he was confused and concerned by his firing and the changing explanations for the action. However, Comey also said that he did not believe that Trump or anyone on Trump’s staff had truly asked him to stop the Russia investigation. Instead, Comey wanted to assure Trump that the FBI was not conducting an investigation into him.
Comey was particularly dismayed at White House claims that the FBI was poorly led and in chaos. “Those were lies, plain and simple,” he said.
Former FBI Director James Comey at Thursday’s Congressional hearing (Screencap image via PBS NewsHour YouTube)
The fact of Comey’s written record, however, speaks to his concern about the President and his administration. “I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting,” he said. The memos were meant to establish a written record about the meetings and a defense of both Comey and the FBI. In his opening statement, Comey said
"I felt compelled to document my first conversation with the President-Elect in a memo. To ensure accuracy, I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting. Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversation with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward."
Since that first private meeting on January 6, Comey recalled that he had nine total one-on-one conversations with Trump, including three in person and six conducted over the phone. On one occasion, Comey believed that he would be one of multiple guests at dinner on January 27. He was, in fact, the only person there besides Trump.
Comey told the President that the FBI was to remain politically neutral. Trump reportedly said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” They then stared at each other in a long and uncomfortable silence. Comey presumably got out of this date from hell by pretending he had a prior engagement somewhere far, far away.
How the memos got out
Comey said that he revealed details of these private conversations because he hoped it would push for a special investigator in the Russia case. Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) asked Comey why he thought to do this. Comey replied that “as a private citizen, I felt free to share that. I thought it was very important to get it out.”
He did not give information to reporters directly. Instead, Comey asked Daniel Richman, a friend and former federal prosecutor, to relay the information. Richman has declined to comment beyond confirming his participation. Comey has also given Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel appointed to the investigation, copies of his memos.
This alone reveals just how much Comey was concerned about the Trump administration. Combined with the memos and the awkward implementation of Comey’s firing, this only serves to raise more questions.
“This is not a witch hunt. This is not fake news,” said Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.). Warner is the senior Democrat on the hearing panel. “This is an effort to protect our country from a new threat that quite frankly will not go away anytime soon”. Likewise, it seems as if the Russia investigation will go on until it’s just two computers arguing with each other in the empty remains of human society.