James Comey’s first testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee was supposed to offer a bombshell; instead, it highlighted two campaigns of misinformation.
On Thursday morning, former FBI director, James Comey, gave his first testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee pertaining to the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and on the subject of his recent firing by President Trump. Comey’s testimony wasn’t particularly enlightening and did not highlight much that we didn’t know, but the dual narratives that have arisen both highlight a concerning gap that is continuing to grow in the media. If you looked at CNN after the testimony was over, you would have seen chyrons highlighting statements such as “Comey: I took Trump’s request about Flynn as a directive” whereas a glance at Fox’s would read “Comey: Pres did not order me to let Flynn probe go”. So who is telling the truth? Who is propagating fake news? It seems that both highlight a modicum of truth in their pursuit of spinning a partisan narrative. CNN’s statement is a direct quote of Comey’s; that his own interpretation of Trump’s discussion of the Flynn case with him constituted a request to drop it, but left it at that, never calling it a direct order although the implication is there. Fox’s line makes it seem as if Trump never did discuss the Flynn case with him, which is of course untrue, but builds on the true point that Trump did not order Comey to drop the case. So who is to trust? CNN or Fox? It seems both are presenting a partisan narrative built on a shred of fact, but piled upon by manipulative spin.
My interest in analyzing this testimony is precisely due to the fact that the analysis that you will see coming out of the mainstream outlets will be spun into a hyper partisan loop of misinformation and implication. I will work directly with the transcript of Comey’s testimony, analyzing the statements that created the most media noise, while highlighting their context.
As many are aware, there is an investigation underway into the supposed interference of Russian state actors in the 2016 US election by means of hacking and communication with the Trump campaign. My scepticism of the validity of the intelligence under investigation is irrelevant to this discussion; we are analyzing only the facts. Based on statements made by the FBI, CIA, and NSA, the Senate Intelligence Committee deemed the matter worthy of further investigation. On May 9th, 2017, President Trump abruptly fired FBI Director Comey. There was a great degree of hypocritical grandstanding on the matter by both right wingers and left wingers; the former praising the President for firing the man they felt botched the Clinton investigation, but supposedly helped elect and the latter berating the President for firing the man they thought put him in the white house, while being the “leader” of the Russia investigation. Something is clearly amiss.
To read Comey’s prepared statement click here:
Comey’s opening statement begins with a January 6th meeting he and other leaders of the intelligence community held with the President elect in order to brief him on the community’s assessment that there had been Russian efforts to interfere in the election. “At the conclusion of that briefing, I remained alone with the President- Elect to brief him on some personally sensitive aspects of the information assembled during the assessment. The IC leadership thought it important, for a variety of reasons, to alert the incoming President to the existence of this material, even though it was salacious and unverified… (1) we knew the media was about to publicly report the material and we believed the IC should not keep knowledge of the material and its imminent release from the President-Elect; and (2) to the extent there was some effort to compromise an incoming President, we could blunt any such effort with a defensive briefing.” The material in discussion was the now debunked dossier which was reported by Buzzfeed and CNN which claimed that Trump had engaged in unsavory acts with Russian prostitutes. Comey is describing his fulfillment of his job, but hits on something; “the FBI’s leadership and I were concerned that the briefing might create a situation where a new President came into office uncertain about whether the FBI was conducting a counter-intelligence investigation of his personal conduct.” This statement is incredibly important. At the time of this statement (and as of today) there is no investigation being conducted into the President’s conduct, but a look at headlines from sites such as the Atlantic would suggest otherwise. “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.” Comey then continued by describing the nature of FBI counter intelligence investigations and pointing out his decision to start keeping written records of his conversations with the President.
The next part of the statement concerned a January 27th dinner he had with the President. Comey entered the dinner somewhat put off by the fact that it was one-on-one between him and the President. “The President began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to… My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.” Here Comey outlines the President’s attempt to screen his FBI director out. Comey was not an appointee of Trump’s and so this created an unusual dynamic between the two as Trump never got to personally vet him. Comey continues by describing the awkward moment when he explained to Trump that he could not be reliable in the way that politicians use the word and Trump responded with the media-sensationalized statement “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” After Comey explained to him that he couldn’t offer loyalty but he could offer honesty, “He paused and then said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get that from me.” This specific statement sparked a variety of misleading headlines. One from the Washington Post reads “‘I expect loyalty,’ Trump told Comey, according to written testimony”. While not false, this statement is designed to frame the discussion as something along the lines of Trump making a threat to Comey. Comey’s own analysis of the conversation, while admitting it was awkward as he had not previously had such close conversations with President Obama, makes no such implication, instead indicating that they came to agreement that honesty would be vital in their professional relationship.
As the statement shifts towards the February 14th Oval Office meeting, the content becomes more pertinent to the current Russia investigation. Comey begins by pointing out the audience at the meeting which included most of the high level intelligence community and the justice department leadership. At the end of the meeting, Trump and Comey had a private conversation in which they discussed the Flynn case (General Flynn had just been relieved of his National Security Advisor duties after it became clear that he had not disclosed a diplomatic meeting with the Russian ambassador to Vice President Pence during the vetting process). “The President began by saying Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians, but he had to let him go because he had misled the Vice President. He added that he had other concerns about Flynn, which he did not then specify. The President then made a long series of comments about the problem with leaks of classified information – a concern I shared and still share… 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.” I replied only that “he is a good guy.” (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would “let this go.” As discussed earlier in this article, the misleading headlines this created sparked two different narratives. In left wing outlets, the statement was interpreted as Trump having obstructed justice by ordering Comey to drop an investigation; Comey himself elaborated in his testimony that this was not the case. Right wing outlets then used it to claim that this was a complete vindication of Trump. This specific aspect of Comey’s testimony strikes me as unusual. Trump, in his constitutionally vested power as President, does have authority over the Justice department, which Comey answered to as head of the FBI. Comey insinuates in his testimony that the reason he was fired was because of his reluctance to drop the Flynn investigation, but this isn’t exactly relevant to his firing as the President need not give reason for firing members of his administration.
Now this branches into a two questions; does Trump’s lukewarm request for Comey to drop an investigation into Flynn or his firing of Comey constitute an obstruction of justice? Throughout history, Presidents have requested the Justice department (and by extension the FBI) pursue investigation and prosecution against individuals and groups (it is within their constitutional power to do so). In fact, as the Attorney General, and his subordinate, the Director of the FBI, answer to the President, the President has the explicit power to direct and/or end any investigation into another individual by means of a pardon. In 1992, then-President Bush pardoned six individuals who were under investigation for their involvement in the Iran-Contra Affair, a scandal which implicated Bush. There was not only evidence for a conspiracy, but Bush had actually endorsed the arms shipments to be made to the Iranian government. Yet his pardoning of the men involved, a few of which had already plead guilty to a variety of crimes, was not seen as an obstruction of justice then, and Trump’s request of Comey, or potential pardon of Flynn won’t be seen as such either, regardless of if the investigation proceeds to implicate President Trump. It is not a crime for the President to operate within his constitutional authority. Comey suggests in his testimony that Trump fired him because of the fact that Comey failed to get the word out that Trump was not under investigation. Based on Comey’s own testimony there is no case to be made for obstruction of justice.
I am not here to vindicate the President. If Trump is found to have been involved in a conspiracy that involved relying on a foreign power to influence the 2016 election, he should and will be held accountable for his actions by Congress. In the meanwhile, there has been a gross misrepresentation of the facts and circumstances surrounding the Comey testimony and I hope that my diving into it could help bring some clarity to the matter.