If this is all Comey has, it’s not what Democrats had been hoping for
The official statement (pdf.) from James Comey, to be read during the hearing tomorrow, has bombshells — but they are helpful to Donald Trump. The statement is embedded in full at the bottom of this post.
Comey confirms — contrary to media reports — that he told Trump that Trump was not personally under investigation. That’s a pretty big concession considering speculation that Trump himself was under investigation.
Comey also paints a picture of Trump trying to put in a good word for Michael Flynn, but there is no suggestion that anything rising to the level of obstruction of justice was said. Also, Comey made clear that those comments did not relate to the general investigation of Russian interference in the election.
We will have additional analysis shortly.
Here are some key excerpts (mostly) in the order in which they appear, and how they relate to prior media reporting. All emphasis is added.
Trump Not Personally Under Investigation
Comey confirmed — three times in the statement — that he told Trump he was not under investigation. The fact of three such statements was in Trump’s termination letter of Comey, but the media discounted it and cited anonymous sources denying it.
“In that context, prior to the January 6 meeting, I discussed with the FBI’s leadership team whether I should be prepared to assure President-Elect Trump that we were not investigating him personally. That was true; we did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him. We agreed I should do so if circumstances warranted. During our one-on-one meeting at Trump Tower, based on President Elect Trump’s reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance.”
“During the dinner, the President returned to the salacious material I had briefed him about on January 6, and, as he had done previously, expressed his disgust for the allegations and strongly denied them. He said he was considering ordering me to investigate the alleged incident to prove it didn’t happen. I replied that he should give that careful thought because it might create a narrative that we were investigating him personally, which we weren’t, and because it was very difficult to prove a negative. He said he would think about it and asked me to think about it.”
“I explained that we had briefed the leadership of Congress on exactly which individuals we were investigating and that we had told those Congressional leaders that we were not personally investigating President Trump. I reminded him I had previously told him that. He repeatedly told me, “We need to get that fact out.””
“Loyalty” – January 27 Dinner
Trump’s alleged demand for a loyalty pledge has received a lot of media attention. Comey says the issue of loyalty came up, but when you read the context, it’s clear that Comey had a predisposition not to trust Trump, and left it vague as to what Trump demanded. You have to read the whole passage, though the media certainly will pull out certain clauses to make it seem more nefarious.
“The President began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to. He said that lots of people wanted my job and, given the abuse I had taken during the previous year, he would understand if I wanted to walk away.
My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.
I replied that I loved my work and intended to stay and serve out my ten year term as Director. And then, because the set-up made me uneasy, I added that I was not “reliable” in the way politicians use that word, but he could always count on me to tell him the truth. I added that I was not on anybody’s side politically and could not be counted on in the traditional political sense, a stance I said was in his best interest as the President.
A few moments later, the President said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner….
Near the end of our dinner, the President returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, “I need loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me.” He paused and then said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get that from me.” As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term – honest loyalty – had helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect.
Flynn Investigation and Russia Probe
It is clear that Comey was uncomfortable with Trump’s personal pitch for Mike Flynn, but there is nothing in Comey’s narrative to suggest a corrupting or unlawful interference.
February 14 Oval Office Meeting – “Let This Go”
This is the “let this go” discussion that was the topic of prior leaks to the media. Interestingly, Comey and his small team decided not to tell anyone else about it, not even AG Jeff Sessions. Perhaps most important, Comey says the Trump comments were only as to Flynn, not as to the Russia probe.
The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, “He is a good guy and has been through a lot.” He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He 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.” I replied only that “he is a good guy.” (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would “let this go.”
The President returned briefly to the problem of leaks. I then got up and left out the door by the grandfather clock, making my way through the large group of people waiting there, including Mr. Priebus and the Vice President.
I immediately prepared an unclassified memo of the conversation about Flynn and discussed the matter with FBI senior leadership. I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December. I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign. I could be wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn’s departure and the controversy around his account of his phone calls. Regardless, it was very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.
The FBI leadership team agreed with me that it was important not to infect the investigative team with the President’s request, which we did not intend to abide. We also concluded that, given that it was a one-on-one conversation, there was nothing available to corroborate my account. We concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations. (He did so two weeks later.) The Deputy Attorney General’s role was then filled in an acting capacity by a United States Attorney, who would also not be long in the role.
After discussing the matter, we decided to keep it very closely held, resolving to figure out what to do with it down the road as our investigation progressed. The investigation moved ahead at full speed, with none of the investigative team members – or the Department of Justice lawyers supporting them – aware of the President’s request.
Shortly afterwards, I spoke with Attorney General Sessions in person to pass along the President’s concerns about leaks. I took the opportunity to implore the Attorney General to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me. I told the AG that what had just happened – him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind – was
inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply. For the reasons discussed above, I did not mention that the President broached the FBI’s potential investigation of General Flynn.
March 30 Phone Call
On the morning of March 30, the President called me at the FBI. He described the Russia investigation as “a cloud” that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to “lift the cloud.” I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him….
[Comey assures Trump he’s not under investigation, quoted above]
The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren’t investigating him.
He finished by stressing “the cloud” that was interfering with his ability to make deals for the country and said he hoped I could find a way to get out that he wasn’t being investigated. I told him I would see what we could do, and that we would do our investigative work well and as quickly as we could.”
April 11 Phone Call
“On the morning of April 11, the President called me and asked what I had done about his request that I “get out” that he is not personally under investigation. I replied that I had passed his request to the Acting Deputy Attorney General, but I had not heard back. He replied that “the cloud” was getting in the way of his ability to do his job. He said that perhaps he would have his people reach out to the Acting Deputy Attorney General. I said that was the way his request should be handled. I said the White House Counsel should contact the leadership of DOJ to make the request, which was the traditional channel.
He said he would do that and added, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” I did not reply or ask him what he meant by “that thing.” I said only that the way to handle it was to have the White House Counsel call the Acting Deputy Attorney General. He said that was what he would do and the call ended.
That was the last time I spoke with President Trump.
The media will focus on the loyalty issue, and the suggesting of “letting this go” as to the Flynn investigation. But that all had been leaked to the media in advance, so the testimony doesn’t add much. What is significant is that there is no suggestion that Comey considered anything illegal had taken place. Additionally, there is no suggestion that Trump did anything to interfere with the overall Russian counter-intelligence investigation being conducted by the FBI.
No matter how much Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans try to spin it, this was a bad day for those who want Trump thrown out of office.
This is a delusional statement. https://t.co/pOP2jeMLpO
— Legal Insurrection (@LegInsurrection) June 7, 2017
Comey's statement establishes obstruction of justice by Trump. Period.
— Jeffrey Toobin (@JeffreyToobin) June 7, 2017
We're going to go through a 24-hr period of rage and yelling and screaming and crashing as people realize Comey doesn't have the goods
— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) June 7, 2017
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