We learned a few things from former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on Thursday morning before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
▪ Earlier reports about Comey’s memos about his interactions with President Donald Trump left open the possibility that he had made such notes throughout his career. This morning, he said that he did not write the memos as a matter of course but as a preemptive defense against the possibility that Trump would lie about those interactions.
▪ We got an on-the-record confirmation by Comey that Trump had indeed asked for his loyalty -- something that was promptly disputed by a source who spoke off the record to the Associated Press. Comey also stood by the claim that Trump had suggested that Comey abandon the FBI’s investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. When asked whether he had done that “in any way, shape, or form,” Trump has previously said no.
▪ Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is under criminal investigation, Comey confirmed.
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▪ Comey said that he expected Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian intervention in the 2016 elections, and that Comey could not explain in open hearings all the reasons he expected that recusal. That’s a major blow to Sessions’s credibility, and a spur to further investigations by Congress and journalists.
▪ Everything Comey has said is consistent with one theory of the case: Trump believes that he is guiltless of any collusion with Russia and was frustrated that Comey wouldn’t say there was no evidence he had done anything wrong.
▪ Comey reported that Trump had encouraged him to find out if anyone in his orbit had acted improperly with the Russians.
▪ We can infer from Comey’s refusal to comment in open session about the “Steele dossier” that he does not (and that the FBI at the time Comey departed did not) consider it entirely discredited.
▪ Comey doesn’t have good answers to some questions: If he felt it was necessary to issue a public statement that Clinton had not knowingly broken any laws by setting up and using her server, why couldn’t he issue a public statement saying Trump was not under a criminal investigation? Why didn’t he push back more vigorously if he felt Trump was trying to corrupt the FBI? After he was fired, why did he have a friend leak Comey’s memo recounting a meeting with Trump?
▪ Comey confirmed reports that Loretta Lynch, the attorney general at the tail end of the Obama administration, had told him to refer to the FBI’s inquiry into Clinton’s private server as a “matter” rather than as an “investigation.”
What we didn’t get from the public part of these hearings is anything that will cause pro-Trump or anti-Trump partisans to reconsider their basic positions. Republican defenders are still able to make four accurate points in Trump’s defense: 1) The president has the legal authority to order the FBI to shut down an investigation. 2) What the president actually said was ambiguous. 3) We are nowhere close to having proof of the elements of the crime of obstruction of justice. 4) Trump may not have been aware of how unusual it is for a president to exert pressure on the FBI.
Granting all of those points, could Trump’s interference nonetheless add up to a “high crime and misdemeanor” that warrants impeachment? The Constitution doesn’t spell out the criteria, leaving open the possibility that a presidential act (or acts) can warrant his removal without violating any provision of statutory law or the Constitution. It does, however, explicitly provide the procedures for removing a president, and those procedures require a very high degree of political consensus before they can be used.
We are very far from having any such consensus. But there’s also no consensus for the White House position that there’s nothing to see here and we should all just move on. The Comey hearing was an episode in a show that isn’t going to be canceled for a good long while.
Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review.