Now it’s getting serious. It’s one thing to give up sensitive information to Russian diplomats while possibly endangering the life of an Israeli intelligence source. That may sound illegal, and it certainly sounds wholly inappropriate, whatever H.R. McMaster says, but presidents have the absolute right — as Donald Trump tweeted it — to instantly declassify any level of classified information.
This is different. As the New York Times is reporting, there is a memo written by James Comey, the just-fired FBI director, detailing how Trump had asked Comey to drop his investigation of Michael Flynn. According to the memo, Trump told Comey in an Oval Office meeting, “I hope you can let this go.”
Comey didn’t let it go. And because Comey didn’t let it go, Trump couldn’t let it go. If Trump fired Comey not because he treated Hillary Clinton badly and not just because of the “Russia thing,” but because Comey wouldn’t drop the Flynn investigation, that begins to sound like obstruction of justice.
We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. But, in one memo, all the bogus stories about impeachment just got a lot less bogus, and the stories of smoking guns will soon follow.
This is just that serious. And for those Republicans who have tried with varying degrees of success to pretend that whatever Trump does in the White House is at least semi-defensible, they now face an entirely different test. Assuming the memo is real — it was read over the phone to The Times and confirmed by The Washington Post — this is something that cannot be ignored.
The memo will be subpoenaed. Comey will have to testify. There will be hearings. A written statement from the White House rebutting the memo won’t be enough, particularly given Trump’s longstanding issues with the truth. If there is a memo and Trump can’t show it to be inaccurate, we’ll finally see an independent counsel or a select committee or maybe both. If Trump has, in fact, been taping conversations in the Oval Office, as he threatened, they will be subpoeanaed, too. And let’s just say, for the record, that Comey doesn’t seem at all worried about the possible existence of tapes.
The Post is reporting that the memo is two pages long and quite detailed. The Times is reporting that Comey shared the memo with his top deputies but didn’t make it public because he didn’t want it to influence the FBI investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 campaign. And various reports are saying that Comey wrote memos on everything.
According to this memo, Trump was meeting with Comey, Vice-President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Oval Office the day after Flynn had resigned. Trump asked Pence and Sessions to leave so he could have a private meeting with Comey. In that meeting, according to the memo Comey wrote soon after, Trump 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.” You think that’s worse than Bill Clinton on the tarmac with Loretta Lynch?
The story is just one more in a long string of damaging stories in the still-brief Trump presidency. This latest rush of self-inflicted wounds — the kind that defines this administration — began soon after Trump finally had some good news, getting Trumpcare out of the House and onto the Senate. The bill may die there, but for Trump, it was enough of a win that he actually had a halftime Rose Garden victory party.
Then came the Sally Yates testimony, the Comey firing, Sean Spicer in the bushes, the Trump tweets on the “Russia thing,” the Trump tweet on possible tapes of his conversations with Comey, the Comey story of the Trump dinner and the loyalty oath, the bombshell report that Trump had shared top-secret information with the Russians, the McMaster news conference defending Trump by saying the (willfully ignorant) president had no idea where the information came from. And now the Comey memo. A plea of ignorance won’t do, but I think I see an Alec Baldwin skit forming.
Presidents don’t generally fire FBI chiefs, if for no other reason that they know too much. Trump didn’t just fire Comey. He humiliated him. Trump sent his bodyguard to FBI headquarters with a letter to tell the man who may have gotten him elected president that he was fired. And in the letter, Trump took a shot at Comey’s integrity, thanking Comey for telling him three times he was not under investigation.
Since Comey was out of town, he didn’t get the letter. He learned about the firing not from Trump, but from watching the news on TV. And Comey has said that he never told Trump about the status of the investigation. There’s a famous piece of LBJ’s typically earthy wisdom on why he couldn’t get rid of J. Edgar Hoover: that it was “better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.” That’s one way to describe the memo.
The funny thing is, we have no idea if the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. We don’t know where the investigation might lead, or if it will go anywhere. But there’s no doubting the evidence of a coverup. In the Republican-controlled Congress, there’s no certainty what will come of it. But there’s one thing for sure: It will not just be Comey who won’t let this go.
Photo by Jeremy Tenenbaum via Flickr:Creative Commons