Comey Testimony: The Big Questions and the Biggest Question
So many times the job of political scientists in the public sphere is to deflate hype. Not this time. Fired FBI director James Comey's testimony Thursday to the Senate Intelligence Committee really is a very big deal -- both for what new facts if any we'll learn and, yes, for the impression Comey makes. Could it fizzle? Sure. But even that would be an important part of the Trump administration story. I suppose everything can be overhyped, but make no mistake: This one is important.
I count four broad themes to look for that Comey will presumably be addressing.
Obstruction of Justice: The big one.
- Did Donald Trump, as has been reported, attempt to interfere with the investigation of the Trump/Russia scandal?
- If so, was it something that can be dismissed as "light" obstruction (perhaps one or two inappropriate comments)?
- Or was it a sustained, orchestrated attempt to shut down what the FBI was doing?
- Of course, that would also raise another couple of questions: How did Comey handle whatever Trump did, and who else within the administration was involved?
Abuse of Power: Harder to define, but nevertheless important.
- Did Trump, for example, improperly push Comey to investigate political opponents? Remember, Trump threatened as much during the campaign.
- Is it true that Trump asked Comey to swear his loyalty to the president? What exactly were the circumstances?
- Did Trump (or White House staffers) otherwise act inappropriately, overstepping the bounds of what presidents are entitled to do with their constitutional grands of authority?
The Russia Scandal: Comey has already testified about this to Congress, and he may be unable to add all that much in open session. Nevertheless, there have been several important revelations since Comey last addressed the scandal in depth back in March, and it's possible he'll be more forthcoming this time around, both about what Russia actually did and what he knows about any Trump campaign involvement.
It still is possible that Trump is instinctively covering up a crime which was never committed by his team, but the more it seems that there was a cover-up, the more it seems likely that there must have been something important (although not necessarily illegal) to hide. At any rate the full accounting of what Russia did remains very important regardless of Trump's possible role in it.
Trump Behind Closed Doors: Comey doesn't seem like one eager to share gossip, even first-hand gossip. Nevertheless, he'll be testifying under oath and may be prompted to talk about Trump's behavior away from the cameras. This may not have anything at all to do with any legal or policy questions, but could be important nonetheless. Remember that Richard Nixon was harmed politically when it was revealed he used coarse language in the Oval Office. That wouldn't be a problem for Trump, presumably, but other things certainly could be. A large portion of the electorate presumably still sees Trump as a basically competent businessman (albeit one who engages in Twitter fights); by all accounts, people who have worked with him since January, including his own senior staff, do not. Comey may begin to educate those who are open to negative information but haven't been paying close attention.
Does It Add Up to Impeachment? We shall see if Comey's testimony really does bring on serious questions of whether the president has committed grave crimes and whether to remove him from office.
Remember first that impeachment does (and should) require a very high bar; the constitutional system does not take removing a president lightly at all, and it's likely that many presidents have broken one law or another during their terms without most people feeling that Congress should employ their ultimate remedy.
We will no doubt hear the actions of Trump compared to those of Richard Nixon during Watergate. But Watergate was as big as it was, with impeachment and conviction absolutely justified, because of the overwhelming range of criminal and unconstitutional actions Nixon and his men had committed. If, for example, the Watergate cover-up had consisted only in Nixon having his men try to squash the investigation by getting the CIA to intervene, it's unlikely Congress would have moved towards impeachment; it was that and the hush money and the coached witnesses perjuring themselves and Nixon's public false statements and all the rest of it that made the article of impeachment about obstruction of justice so necessary.
Remember too that impeachment is (and should be) a political, not a legal, matter. The president swore to "preserve, protect, and defend" a system of government which calls on him to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed" through its Constitution. That's why obstruction of justice is such a big deal -- it's not just any old crime (like, say, perjury about an affair). And abuse of power also gets at the very core of what it means to be a government of laws, not men, and of a system in which each position within the government is carefully balanced by others. In both cases, however, it is more a question of political judgement, not simply legal doctrine, which is needed to determine the nature and the severity of the malfeasance.
And remember as well that presidents can be badly hurt by scandals even if impeachment is never really quite on the table. It's unclear to what extent Trump's terrible approval ratings are related to either the Russia story or the potential obstruction story. But this hearing is being treated as a very big deal by the media, with broadcast networks planning to break into regular programming with star anchors like Lester Holt and George Stephanopoulos for at least part of it. That will signal to inattentive voters that the scandal is worth paying attention to. And, no, that's not media bias; by all accounts, the press is merely and correctly taking their cue from politicians of both parties (including the president) who are treating this as very important.
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