WASHINGTON ― When it comes to President Donald Trump and Russian interference in the election, the issue is the cover-up, not the crime. That’s the takeaway from former FBI Director James Comey’s dramatic testimony before Congress on Thursday.
Trump was not under criminal investigation himself when Comey was fired last month, Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee. What could put the president in hot water with Special Counsel Robert Mueller now are his alleged attempts to lean on Comey to end the FBI’s investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Rather than facing an FBI probe that might have ended with Flynn, the president is now looking at an expanding and independent investigation.
Comey said he is “sure” that whether Trump engaged in obstruction of justice is a focus of Mueller’s investigation. “I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct,” he added.
Nor would Comey explicitly say whether he believed Trump ever coordinated with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election; he declined to discuss the subject in an unclassified setting. But his confirmation that Trump was not under investigation at the point when the president fired Comey makes clear what a mess Trump created for himself when he allegedly tried to lean on the FBI director and ultimately fired him.
There had been some debate on Comey’s team as to whether the director should inform Trump that he was not under investigation. One of Comey’s aides argued that, just as in almost any criminal probe, investigators would work their way up the chain and any evidence of Trump’s knowledge of Russian interference could become part of the inquiry in due course.
Comey said Thursday that what he told the president about not being under investigation was “accurate and fair” at the time. That’s no longer the case.
By firing Comey, Trump created a powerful enemy no longer entirely constrained by the traditions of the FBI or the desire to keep his job. Compounding their error, the Trump administration and the president himself angered Comey with what Comey called their “shifting explanations” for his firing that left him “confused” and “concerned.”
The White House’s initial story — that Comey was fired because of his handling of the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails — “didn’t make sense to me for a whole bunch of reasons,” Comey said Thursday.
Concern over what Comey called “lies” about the reason for his firing and defamation of the FBI is what led him to authorize a friend and adviser to read one of his memos memorializing a conversation with Trump to a reporter from The New York Times. Comey hoped that would lead to the appointment of a special prosecutor, he said. It did.
The American people should have full confidence in Mueller, who preceded Comey as head of the FBI, Comey said Thursday. Mueller, he said, is a straight shooter who will “turn over all the rocks” in the course of the investigation. Comey added that Mueller would never have agreed to become special counsel last month “if he wasn’t going to get full independence.”
What’s still not clear is why Trump was so eager to protect Flynn, especially since — according to Comey — the president was perfectly fine with the FBI investigating whether “satellite” members of his campaign had done anything wrong.
The FBI will be fine without him, Comey said Thursday. And the probe into the Trump campaign will continue, especially now that Mueller is in place.
“There’s lots of bad things about me not being at the FBI. Most of them are for me,” Comey said. “But the work is going to go on as before.”