Comey outfoxes Trump before, during testimony

Point

WASHINGTON — In former FBI Director James Comey’s long-awaited testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearings on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, he demonstrated tactical genius in his ongoing battle with President Trump, the man who fired him.

Comey shrewdly didn’t wait for the hearing to begin Thursday morning. He unexpectedly jumped the gun Wednesday afternoon by releasing a six-page detailed summary of three in-person conversations with Trump and six by phone.

The first meeting took place at Trump Tower in New York, and the rest involved Comey visiting the White House or the president phoning him from there. In these encounters, Trump tried to seize and hold the upper hand in what he obviously regarded as a sensitive and perilous political face-off.

By the time Comey appeared before the committee, his meaty opening statement had been widely circulated and digested by the news media. Its highlight was his account of how Trump tried to get him to drop his pursuit of the Russian investigation, specifically the allegations against National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for lying about his meetings with the Russians.

The president’s actions provided raw material for an obstruction-of-justice case against Trump, still well down the road. Comey recalled how the president romanced him by inquiring at a private White House dinner whether he wanted to remain as the FBI director. Comey wrote that he found the question “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.”

Comey wrote that “my instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant this dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.” Trump made the next move, Comey wrote, by telling him: “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”

Comey wrote that he said nothing, enduring an “awkward silence” at the dinner’s end, when Trump repeated it and Comey told him: “You will always get honesty from me.” Afterward, he wrote, he penned “a detailed memo and shared it” with senior FBI leaders, clearly for self-protection.

Feb. 14, after a large meeting in the Oval Office on counterterrorism, Trump asked other participants, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, to leave, then telling Comey: “I want to talk about Mike Flynn.” Flynn had been forced to resign the previous day.

Comey wrote that Trump said regarding Flynn: “He is a good guy and has been through a lot,” adding, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Comey pointedly told the Senate Committee: “I did not say I would let this go.”

In a later conversation with Sessions, in which the attorney general shared Trump’s concerns over leaks, Comey said he “took the opportunity to implore the attorney general to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me. I told the AG that what had just happened … was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply. … I did not mention that the President broached the FBI’s potential investigation of General Flynn.”

Comey next reported a March 30 phone call from Trump describing “the Russian investigation as ‘a cloud’ that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country.” The FBI director said the president insisted that regarding a “salacious” dossier being circulated “he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what could be done to ‘lift the cloud’ … and said he hoped I could find a way to get out that he wasn’t being investigated.” Comey said he told him the FBI would “do our investigative work well and as quickly as we could.”

Comey said he considered Trump’s “hope” an order or directive to kill the Russian meddling investigation and let Flynn go, which he never would have followed. He was certain, he said, that special counsel Robert Mueller, just appointed by the Justice Department, will pursue the Russian case unimpeded.