In his brief time questioning former FBI Director James Comey Thursday, Idaho Sen. Jim Risch’s probing led to one of the highlights of the day — demonstrating the difference between what President Donald Trump said during a one-on-one conversation at the White House in February following a briefing with security staff, and how Comey interpreted it.
Risch, a former prosecutor who sounded more like a defense attorney in this exchange, essentially injected the kind of doubt — perhaps even reasonable doubt lawyers are known for — about the intention of Trump’s statements as Comey himself recorded them. In other words: Did Trump ask, wish, request or order Comey to end, or wrap up, the probe of deposed National Security Advisor Micheal Flynn, who had been fired the day before?
This isn’t about whether you like or dislike Trump, Comey, Risch or any other participants in this probe of Russian influence of our election process. As with all legal cases, it is about what was actually said and its potential for prosecution.
One can assign weight to any statement, as all humans do, but the exchange, I believe, lands more in Trump’s favor — especially if you’re trying to decide if Trump is vulnerable to an accusation of obstruction of justice.
There were times during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with Comey when partisan feelings and strategies were regrettably transparent.
Very soon our Congress has to get past Trump’s personal role in this Russian probe and concentrate on the larger picture, as citizen Comey laid it out. The Russians interfered here. It was an attack on all Americans. And the Russinas are going to do it again. Here’s hoping the probe begins to focus more on these realities.
Anybody who wants to continue to drag Trump into this matter through the Flynn trap door had better find a way to square the Risch-Comey exchange when it comes to what was said, and what may be actionable by a prosecutor.
From Comey’s pre-testimony statement: “(Trump) then said, ‘I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.’ ”
Here is a portion of the Thursday exchange.
Risch: “He said, ‘I hope...’ Like me you’ve probably done hundreds of cases charging people with criminal offenses. ... Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice — or for that matter any other criminal offense — where they said or thought they hoped for an outcome?”
Comey: “. . . I took it as a direction. This is the President of the United States with me alone saying, ‘I hope this.’ I took it as this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that. “
Risch: “You may have taken it as a direction, but that is not what he said.”
Risch: “He said ‘I hope.’ ”
Comey: “Those were his exact words, correct.”
Risch: “You don’t know anyone who has ever been charged for hoping something?”
Comey: “I don't as I sit here.”
A smoking gun may be found in the future implicating Trump in some serious wrongdoing as this investigation unfolds. But Risch’s tactical questioning of Comey may have put some of the obstruction debate around Trump and Flynn to rest.
Trump has a country to run. Congress has a mountain of critical decisions to make. Every moment we as a country spend parked on “He said/I heard” keeps the floodgates of distraction wide open at a very dangerous time in our history.