What Comey Said and What It Means
As former FBI Director James Comey testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee, it's useful to bear two things in mind: What he's describing isn't normal. And it isn't going away.
In a written statement released before his appearance, Comey depicted a disturbing sequence of events related to the investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election. President Donald Trump repeatedly asked Comey to pledge his loyalty, requested that he state publicly that Trump wasn't under investigation, and suggested that he drop a probe into Michael Flynn, the erstwhile national security adviser. Comey declined on all counts, and Trump fired him not long afterward.
By itself, this looks like another inappropriate-but-maybe-not-technically-illegal incident of the kind Trump specializes in. Considered in a larger context, though, it starts to look like something worse.
For starters, pressuring the country's top law-enforcement officer to drop an investigation that implicates members of your administration certainly looks like an abuse of power. Demanding that he pledge you his loyalty suggests disregard for the rule of law. It's not clear which is more disturbing.
Trump's interactions with Comey are part of a pattern. The president reportedly made similar requests of Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence; Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency; and Mike Pompeo, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. When questioned on the topic at a hearing Wednesday, Coats and Rogers resorted to elaborate euphemism. Trump's administration exerted similar pressure on officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees, asking them to rebut negative media reports about the Russia investigation.
If it is satisfied that Comey's testimony is true -- and his credibility is certainly higher than Trump's -- Congress would be within its rights to formally censure the president over it. That would still leave the questions of what to do about Russia's interference in the election and why Trump is so keen to suppress the investigation into it.
That interference is beyond dispute. Its efforts included a sophisticated propaganda and social engineering operation. It conducted espionage against campaigns, lobbyists and think tanks. Its operatives stole and published politically damaging emails, accessed state and local electoral boards, and targeted election officials with malicious software.
Trump has insisted that none of this is worth investigating. That may be because U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that it was intended to help him win. It may be because the FBI is probing ties between his associates and Russian agents. Or there may be some other explanation.
Which suggests a final concern. Much about Trump's relationship to Russia remains inexplicable. Against all advice, his administration has pushed to end sanctions on the country. His son-in-law and top adviser held secret meetings with Russian officials and tried to set up a secret communications link with the Kremlin. Trump himself has dabbled in Russian propaganda, effusively praised Russia's president, and shared highly sensitive intelligence with Russian officials in the Oval Office. There were laughs all around.
Congress has an obligation to continue investigating this matter. The FBI must determine if any crimes were committed. And the president? He must accept that these probes will continue, whether he likes it or not.
--Editors: Timothy Lavin, Michael Newman.
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