Former FBI Director James Comey’s explosive testimony at the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday did not disappoint. His detailed recitation of events earlier released through his memos pictured a president trying hard to corral an upright FBI director into submission. And from his unflinching testimonies, a clearer picture comes to focus of President Donald Trump’s attempt to gingerly muzzle him through a romantic dinner on Valentine’s Day or openly saying to his face for him to lay-off on fired former NSA Director Michael Flynn.
Now, because Trump is the president, everybody is talking about whether all these entreaties amounted to an attempt to obstruct justice. First, Trump asked for Comey’s loyalty NOT to the Constitution or the country but to the Donald. The underpinning here is that the president has the power to fire him “if he is not loyal to the president.” Comey’s response was “I’ll always be honest with you,” and not “yes, I’ll be loyal to you.” Comey knew too well that this was highly inappropriate for the president to ask thus his effort to create a paper trail and therefore the memos.
Second, Trump mentioned his recently fired NSA director and even without batting an eyelash asked Comey if he could make the cloud hanging over his administration (the Flynn matter) “go away.” Anyway, “Flynn is a good guy,” to which Comey agreed but not to let go. When the president tells you “I hope you can find a way,” it means do something and precisely how Comey interpreted Trump’s direction – an order.
Third, when Trump sensed that Comey was uncontrollable, he fired him under some pretext that the Deputy Attorney General wanted him fired for the messy handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation and interring in the last presidential election. It turned out as Trump said it himself, that regardless of what the Justice Department people wanted to do, the president already made up his mind to fire the guy.
Now, if Trump was an ordinary federal employee he would have been facing series of federal charges stemming from these conversations. Asking for loyalty to the president was already an implied threat to Comey’s job as the country’s top cop. The FBI director enjoys a 10-year tenure precisely to be shielded from politics but Trump whose prime background is that of a businessman did not let that separation or distinction get in the way to have control over his underlings. Thus the unstated words, “if you can’t be loyal, you’re fired!” it’s no different than telling a female employee that she could lose her job if she did not have sex with Trump.
Pressuring Comey to basically stop the investigation on Michael Flynn was already an act to obstruct an investigation – no matter how he said it. The fact that the president asked his key cabinet officials including the Justice Secretary to clear the room so he could have a tete-a-tete with Comey showed premeditation and intent. And the fact that this was done at the Trump Tower versus the Oval Office where their conversation would have been taped, betrayed a sinister plan to box in a sitting FBI director. This was basically soliciting a federal officer to commit a crime because had Comey followed Trump’s request, he too would have been guilty of obstruction.
Some Republicans are twisting like pretzels to try to turn the tables against Comey but pushing for their talking points – that Comey could have told Trump to stop (like in harassment cases, the first step is to tell the aggressor to stop) but this was the president of the United States, the most powerful person in America if not the world, thus made Comey pause and rethink about what was happening. Much like in harassment cases, victims (and Comey was the victim here) are intimidated by people in power. Some GOP leaders are also minimizing the words used like “hoping” is not a crime but whether it was “paligoy-ligoy” (beating around the bush) or directly saying to “stop the investigation” makes no difference because the president’s word carried a lot of weight. Thus, presidents are told to be circumspect when making a comment whether it is about the economy (could tank Wall Street) or foreign policy (like the travel ban that included Iraq).
Thus when Comey was fired, the president carried out his implied threat when he did not get the “quid-pro-quo” arrangement he was looking for. Thus, this is a clear case of retaliation – also a federal offense. These offenses if committed by a federal employee could have resulted already on the termination of the employee.
But as a sitting president, Trump is immune from prosecution and thus the only option available is to file an impeachment case if he does not give up his office. And obstruction of justice is one of those considered as “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The investigations are still far from over and there are still important people to be called to the carpet including retired general Michael Flynn himself who is at the center of all these. Many are just dumbfounded why the president would do all these for Flynn. Remember that it took 18 days for Trump to finally let go of Flynn. What does Flynn know about Trump that makes him so valuable or important to Trump? Does he have proof of Trump’s dirty secrets in Russia that could have been supplied by Putin himself? Why the rash of Russian contact among Trump’s circle of friends?
In the end, perhaps collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign would not be established but along the way people such as Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, Attorney General Jess Sessions, and others who had contacts with the Russians could be snared and prosecuted for other offenses given their individual culpabilities in this widening criminal probe.
My guess is that while many are thinking that the pressure on Trump is more on the collapsing cordon around him due to the Russian hacking, I believe the pressure is coming from Putin himself who clearly holds the leash on Trump. Remember the bombing of a Syrian military airfield that Trump supporters heralded the president’s decisive action to launch the Tomahawk missiles in response to a chemical attack on a Syrian village that killed scores of children and older people? I think it was all staged by Putin himself.
Consider this: Not a single Russian or Syrian soldier was killed during such bombing and the airfield was back in operation the next day with Syrian forces dropping more bombs in the same area. We were led to believe that any ray of hope for a US/Russian cooperation was in the ISIS campaign had evaporated with the bombing, but then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was warmly received at the Kremlin and Putin himself giving an audience to Tillerson. Days later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak was also given audience by Trump because of Putin’s personal call to Trump. It was widely reported that Trump called Comey a “nut job.”
Now, Trump has also done other bidding for Putin like creating a wedge among NATO members with Trump’s scolding and non-committal to the treaty’s Article V (attack on one, attack on all doctrine). Then Trump pulled the US out of the Paris climate agreement, accused Germany, (closest US ally in Europe) of engaging in unfair trade practices, and more. This is clearly Putin’s gambit to loosen up the crippling sanctions that the Obama administration and European allies imposed on Russia because of the Ukraine invasion. With Trump erratic and odd behavior, it is not far off to think that Putin has aces on Trump and is willing to do the bidding for him. Something truly detrimental to Trump’s business enterprise that could show the emperor has no clothes.