Was President Donald J. Trump guilty of obstruction for the way he pressured — and ultimately fired — FBI Director James Comey in hopes of scaling back the FBI investigation into ties between his associates and Russian hackers?
It’s still not clear. Those who were hoping to hear clear and convincing evidence during Comey’s nearly three hours of testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday probably came away disappointed.
But the former FBI director gave America something just as incriminating — a portrait of a president who is patronizing, duplicitous and unfazed about knocking down historic barriers designed to protect the independence of the nation’s top law enforcement agency from White House interference.
Comey testified that during his nine interactions with President Trump, both in person and on the telephone, Trump did not directly tell him to halt the investigation into the Russian affair, specifically the role of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his ties to Moscow. But he said he felt increasingly pressured to redirect the Russia investigation away from Flynn.
In fact, his entire experience with this administration seemed to be as an unwilling partner to some kind of quid pro quo.
Although Comey said he had already told the president that he wished to stay on as FBI director, normally a 10-year appointment, Trump made clear early on that he wanted something in return. “I need loyalty,” Trump said during a Jan. 27 dinner at the White House, according to Comey. “I expect loyalty.”
Although he did not grant it in those terms, his bonds with the president were tested just a few weeks later when, after an Oval Office meeting on terrorism, Comey was asked to stay behind. He said Trump wanted to talk about Flynn who had been fired the day before. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said. Comey said he felt the meaning was clear — that he wanted the FBI to drop any further investigation into Flynn. But he said the investigation did not stop and that he did not even communicate that request to those agents conducting the investigation.
Later, during a March 30 phone call, Comey said Trump described the Russia investigation as “a cloud” that was hanging over him and impairing his ability to move forward with his agenda. He asked Comey to make a public statement noting that Trump was not personally under investigation. On April 11, he received another such appeal by phone.
Comey explained that, early on, he made the decision to take meticulous notes after each encounter with the president because he had a “gut feeling” the president might lie about the nature of the meetings.
This appeared to be the case when Comey eventually was fired last month. Comey said he was left “confused” and “concerned” when Trump told the public his termination was related to his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Later, Trump changed the explanation, saying that Comey simply “wasn’t doing a good job” and that he was undermining the morale of the FBI. Trump took it to even greater extremes a day later when, in a conversation with Russian officials in the Oval Office, he referred to Comey as “a real nut job.”