Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Thursday was riveting, but in the long run, not as damning as the White House may have feared. In his first public remarks since being sacked by President Donald Trump last month, Mr. Comey mounted an effective defense of the FBI, refuted attacks of his leadership of it, and called into question the actions of President Donald Trump and his administration in the wake of his firing.
Yet, Mr. Comey’s testimony offered no clear smoking gun. It certainly didn’t help Mr. Trump, but it could have been worse. The damage was doled out in mostly superficial wounds to Mr. Trump’s credibility that mattered little to Trump supporters, among whom Mr. Comey’s version of events carries little currency.
To Mr. Trump’s supporters, the key takeaway was Mr. Comey’s confirmation that Mr. Trump was not a target in the FBI counterterrorism investigation into Russian election meddling. For the President’s critics, it was “lies, plain and simple” — Mr. Comey’s stark refutation of the White House’s characterization of his leadership of an FBI they claimed to be in disarray. At the end of the day, while Mr. Comey’s testimony wasn’t exactly the “total vindication” Mr. Trump claimed on Twitter, it wasn’t the decisive setback many predicted either.
The Real Reason Comey Was Fired
Constant leaks and Mr. Comey’s earlier testimony that the FBI was investigating potential collusion of Trump’s campaign in Russia’s election meddling left an erroneous impression that Mr. Trump was personally a target of the probe. The wisdom of Mr. Comey’s refusal to confirm what we now know as fact, that Mr. Trump was not, is debatable. Mr. Comey’s rationalization that he would have a “duty to correct” if Mr. Trump later came under investigation seems lacking. It is fair to argue that Mr. Comey had a duty to correct the misperception that he was.
It’s plausible that Mr. Trump was not personally complicit in Russia’s election meddling. If so, Mr. Trump’s frustration with the “cloud” created by the FBI’s investigation, which emerged as a consistent theme in Mr. Comey’s testimony, seems more understandable. Andrew McCarthy argued in the National Review that it was Mr. Comey’s refusal to publicly confirm that Mr. Trump was not a direct target of the investigation that led to his firing. “Do you suppose the desperation to tell that to the world, the exasperation over Comey’s refusal to tell it to the world, just might have been at the front of the president’s mind?” he wrote.
Trump looked foolish and prideful, but not necessarily criminal.
Despite all the hype leading up to Thursday’s hearing, on the primary question of Mr. Trump’s complicity in Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the needle barely budged. Nothing in Mr. Comey’s testimony suggested new evidence that Mr. Trump colluded in Russia’s scheme to influence the 2016 election. Mr. Trump’s overtures to Mr. Comey about going easy on former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn and lifting the cloud the probe had placed on his Presidency, while arguably inappropriate and certainly a breach of the traditional protocol for interactions between a President and FBI Directors, aren’t in themselves criminal obstruction of justice. As Mr. Comey noted in his testimony, the President can fire an FBI Director for any reason or no reason at all. After Mr. Comey’s testimony, Trump’s pleas look less like obstruction of justice and more like poor judgement and lack of understanding of what is and isn’t appropriate in his interactions with an FBI director.
Media commentators thought Comey’s testimony was damning; Trump supporters were unfazed.
Media commentators universally thought Mr. Comey came off as the honest, sincere good cop. He was remarkably candid about both his interactions with Mr. Trump and his own actions and thinking. It was among the most stunningly open and unvarnished congressional testimonies of recent memory. Mr. Comey’s primary goal was to defend the FBI, and his actions as its leader against the attacks of President Trump and his surrogates. In this Mr. Comey largely succeeded, at least among audiences willing to listen.
Mr. Comey’s testimony may have caused Mr. Trump’s credibility to take a hit — but only among those inclined to view Mr. Comey as the more credible source. Mr. Trump’s supporters are thoroughly hardened against attacks on him. Trump loyalists view the mainstream media as fake news, polls as rigged, and Russian interference in the election as a fiction concocted by the press and their “deep state” allies to absolve Hillary Clinton of blame for Trump’s victory. Few of them will be inclined to take Mr. Comey’s word for it.
Comey’s candidness gave Team Trump fresh ammunition.
Mr. Comey’s candidness had a flip side. It provided fresh ammunition for Mr. Trump and his defenders. Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz pounced on Mr. Comey’s admission that he orchestrated the leaked memos detailing Mr. Trump’s interactions with Mr. Comey — an attack line later reflected in a tweet by Mr. Trump. The implication that the leak was illegal (it wasn’t) and that Mr. Comey is a “leaker” responsible for other media reports damaging to Mr. Trump were assumptions that Team Trump were more than happy to let stand.
Mr. Kasowitz’s response, while at times disingenuous, may prove more effective than the usual White House strategy of scattershot hyperbole, which often leaves the White House vulnerable to incredulous news stories that extend the story for days.
Kasowitz’s Complaints About Comey’s Leaked Memo May Violate Whistleblower Statutes
In their zeal to capitalize on Mr. Comey’s admission that he was behind leaks, Trump’s defenders may be overplaying their hand. The formal complaints about Mr. Comey’s leaked memos Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, Mark Kasowitz reportedly intends to file with the Justice Department and the Senate Judiciary Committee could land Team Trump in hot water.
As the Washington Post’s Phillip Bump pointed out, it may qualify as retaliation under federal whistleblower statutes.
In other words, Comey, here, is an employee who is blowing the whistle, to use the idiom, on his former boss. That boss wants to punish him for doing so. That’s problematic — especially if there’s no evidence that Comey actually violated any law that would trigger punishment.
Comey’s testimony poured cold water on charges of partisan motives
The accusations of political motivations behind Mr. Comey’s actions regularly leveled by Mr. Trump’s defenders didn’t hold water in light of his testimony. Mr. Comey’s detailed and unusually honest account of the thinking behind his decisions revealed a consistent thread of concern for protecting the institution for the FBI and the credibility of its work. Mr. Comey was also quite critical of the actions of Loretta Lynch, President Obama’s attorney general. Mr. Comey revealed that Mr. Lynch instructed him to use language that downplayed the significance of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton:
“[T]he attorney general had directed me not to call it an ‘investigation,’ but instead to call it a ‘matter,’ which confused me and concerned me, but that was one of the bricks in the load that led me to conclude I have to step away from the department if we’re to close this case credibly.”