Trump Didn't Have Any Friends in the Room With Comey
It was a riveting display of political fireworks, complete with a fired FBI director accusing his former boss of lying about why he was fired. Comey also said he had to take special precautions with Trump in large part because the president can't be trusted to tell the truth. Devastating.
But the core of James Comey's testimony was built upon the question of obstruction of justice, for which he had a clear and, basically, uncontested story:
- President Donald Trump made clear over time he wanted Comey to be loyal to the president, not to the law or the Bureau, and that loyalty meant curtailing the Russia investigation;
- The investigation went forward unimpeded. Comey is in fact loyal to the law and the Bureau, not to the president;
- Trump fired Comey;
- And Trump himself said the dismissal was over the Russia investigation.
Committee Republicans may have had some success poking holes in the precise meaning of Trump's requests to Comey: Was it limited to just the Flynn portion of the investigation or something broader? But it's Trump's public statements on why he fired Comey that support the latter.
That this constitutes a form of obstruction of justice and is therefore "impeachable" is fairly obvious. But impeachable is a funny word.
What is a justified and legitimate use of Congress's impeachment power? The Constitution doesn't say. Nor does it require Congress to act just because "everybody" thinks that the president has done something impeachable. That's a political question completely up to the House to decide (and then for the Senate if the House puts it to them).
In that sense, while there's no way of knowing how this scandal plays out, what we already know is devastating to the president's professional reputation. Republicans as well as Democrats will conclude that the president is incompetent, that his word cannot be trusted, that he does not respect the laws and norms of the constitutional system, and that those around him either share each of those traits or act as if they shared them. Of course this episode and the broader Russia scandal are only one piece of that, but anyone tempted to believe that Trump's bluster was limited to peripheral situations will certainly know that he acted unprofessionally and worse even with national security and his own political viability on the line.
We can see that in the questioning from committee Republicans, which broke down into three groups.
- A couple just wanted to talk about Hillary Clinton and emails.
- A couple asked questions designed to draw Comey out further, questions the White House could not be happy about at all.
- And about half of them tried to challenge Comey's facts and interpretations, but most of them did so in only a half-hearted way, and none of them shook the former director's story at all on any subject.
So while it's quite true that no Republican "broke with" the president in the sense of adopting the harsh language that the Democrats used, it's also true that none of them really did much to support the president; at best it seemed the president can count on some Republicans to be reluctant but willing partisan warriors, but it sure didn't seem to me that Trump had any real friends in that room.
The legal case against the Trump team and any potential impeachment will depend on many factors, including other facts which we don't yet know. But the damage to Trump is severe. A president who is not respected, trusted, or even feared is not going to have much influence in Washington. I'm not only talking about members of Congress (and remember, Republicans who aren't influenced by the president will still try to pass very conservative legislation because they themselves are very conservative). I'm also talking about bureaucrats, state governments, even judges. If things don't change, and it's hard to see any reason to expect them too, we're going to have years of a president, as Matt Glassman said, will be "reduced to almost the bare bones formal powers of the office."
Comey and this hearing can be seen then not (necessarily) as steps on the way to some ultimate climax of the presidency, but as confirmation of how badly Trump is doing, and how little he'll be able to get done going forward. That doesn't mean he's not dangerous: Presidential weakness endangers the nation, as does a president who abuses or misuses those "bare bones formal powers," given how formidable they still can be.
Impeachment and removal may be less likely at this point than an extended demonstration of just how powerless a president can become.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Jonathan Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org
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