The Comey Memo, Watergate and Impeachment

A memorandum for the file written by fired FBI Director James B. Comey revealed this week is raising charges of obstruction of justice and excited talk of impeachment among Trump critics. The memo, first reported by The New York Times, details a conversation between Comey and the President in which Trump apparently pressured the FBI to drop its investigation into Michael T. Flynn. That conversation supposedly took place the day after Trump fired Flynn because he lied to Vice President Pence about his contacts with Russian officials.

The existence of the memo has led at least one senior Republican senator to say the allegation raised in the memo – that the President may have tried to derail an investigation that possibly could implicate him or close associates – was reminiscent of Watergate. While parallels to Watergate seem premature, that is not a good place to be if you are a President involved, even peripherally, in an FBI probe.

‘I hope you can let this go’

According to The Times account, in a private Oval Office meeting, President Trump encouraged Comey to abandon the FBI’s investigation of his former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, telling the FBI Director, “I hope you can let this go.”

After he returned to his office, Comey wrote a memo for the file that documented the conversation. He showed the memo to senior FBI officials, and told colleagues that he perceived the President’s comments as an attempt to pressure him to halt the Flynn investigation.

These memos would have been nothing unusual for Comey. Multiple people close to the former FBI Director told Roughly Explained that throughout his career, Comey had made it a habit to write memos documenting important conversations in real time.

Unexploded Bombshells

The Times report and suggest potential unexploded bombshells for Trump. The article noted the memo “was part of a paper trail Mr. Comey created documenting what he perceived as the president’s improper efforts to influence a continuing investigation.”

“Improper efforts.” Plural. If the Times report is correct, it suggests that Trump may have sought to halt or impede the FBI investigations into Flynn’s connections with Russia and, possibly, the agency’s probe of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election on more than one occasion. There may be other shoes to drop.

Congress Requests Documents

The Times’ account was based on a source who read one of them to a Times reporter over the phone. No one outside of Comey’s inner circle has actually seen the memos. But that may soon change.

On Tuesday, Chairman of the House oversight committee Jason Chaffetz wrote a letter to the FBI requesting that the Bureau hand over all documents or recordings related to President Donald Trump’s communications with former FBI chief James Comey.

In his letter to acting Director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, Chaffetz said that if the reports are accurate, “these memoranda raise serious questions as to whether the President attempted to influence or impede the FBI’s investigation as it relates to Lt. Gen. Flynn.”

Chaffetz set a deadline of May 24 for the FBI to hand over the documents.

The Specter of Watergate

For many, including Sen. John S. McCain, the Comey memo raised the dark shadow of Watergate. McCain said Wednesday, “I think we’ve seen this movie before. I think it appears at a point where it’s of Watergate size and scale.” From what we know so far that might be overstating things.

McCain has personal reasons to dislike Trump. In July 2015, then-candidate Trump said of the Arizona senator, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” McCain was held prisoner for more than five years, during which time he was repeatedly beaten and tortured. McCain still feels the effects of that ordeal to this day. It wouldn’t be surprising if McCain still held a grudge.

While the revelations so far are troubling, comparisons to Watergate seem premature. Watergate was a vast, complex scandal that involved payments of hush money, a plan to enlist the CIA in an effort to shut down the FBI’s investigation, the firing of a special prosecutor and taped conversations that proved Nixon’s complicity. So far, all we know about Trump is that he fired the FBI director and, if this newest report is correct, lobbied the FBI director to go easy on Flynn.

In an interview with Roughly Explained last month, FOX News Senior Washington Correspondent and Watergate historian James Rosen cautioned against getting too carried away with allusions to the Nixon-era scandal. “The American people have become inured to the brandishing, on a near daily basis, of the word ‘Watergate’ to describe this or that, Rosen, who wrote a definitive 2008 biography of Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell said. “It strikes me that too little is yet known about the current situation to merit comparisons to the great scandal of 1972-75.” The developments of this week probably don’t change that analysis much. While there are almost certainly other shoes to drop, we’re not there yet.

Is Trump at Risk for Impeachment?

The articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon charged that he engaged “in a course of conduct or plan designed to delay, impede, and obstruct the investigation,” through, among other things, “interfering or endeavouring to interfere with the conduct of investigations by the Department of Justice of the United States, [and] the Federal Bureau of Investigation. . . .” Thus, there is historical and legislative precedent for the impeachment of a president on the grounds that he merely attempted to interfere in an FBI probe.

Whether Trump’s actions meet that standard will be entirely up to House of Representatives. In an unsuccessful 1970 attempt to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, then Rep. Gerald R. Ford declared: “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

GOP in A Quandary

If the allegations contained in the Comey memo are accurate, Trump may find many GOP members of Congress reluctant to come to his aid. Trump’s anti-Washington platform won him few friends on Capitol Hill. Since being elected, the President has made little progress in winning over skeptical members of his party. Still, it will be politically difficult for Congressional Republicans to abandon Trump completely. Trump continues to enjoy strong support among his voters, only 2% of which said they regret casting their ballot for him according to one recent poll. While many Capitol Hill Republicans may be in no hurry to defend Trump, there’s political risk in turning against him at this point.

Many ordinary Americans have grown numb to the perpetual sense of crisis in Washington. Distrust of the media, disgust with Washington, and a confusing array of overlapping scandals makes it hard to make sense of it all. Trump supporters, who see the accusations against Trump as the handiwork of a cabal of Washington insiders, Hillary loyalists and their media allies, dismiss all of this as a conspiracy to undermine the man they elected and still stand behind.

Where Things Stand

Conclusive evidence that Trump himself was complicit in Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election has yet to emerge. Too little is known about Trump’s actions in regards to James to merit a judgement on whether they rise to the level of Nixon-era obstruction of justice. There is still some possibility that this all turns out to be all smoke and no fire.

But, the White House’s problems are growing more serious with each passing week. Team Trump’s often ham-handed attempts at damage control are serving only to deepen his troubles. In a sign of deteriorating morale within the West Wing, Trump’s inner circle has become the primary source of leaks to the press as unnerved staffers seek to distance themselves from the air of scandal enveloping their boss.

While there’s still hope that Trump can turn it around, we can say for certain that things look worse for Trump now than they did a week ago.


The author is a former U.S. government investigator.

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