President Trump appears to be guilty of obstruction of justice. That’s the only rational conclusion to be reached if James Comey’s opening statement for his planned testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Thursday, is to be believed. The lurch of the Trump Presidency from one crisis to the next scandal produces a kind of bombshell-induced numbness, but that should not prevent us from appreciating the magnitude of Comey’s statement.
The statement, alongside other established facts, doesn’t just lay out evidence; it tells a story. In this tale, the President knows how much power he possesses and dangles it before those who serve him. The F.B.I. director was in the middle of a ten-year term, which was designed to give him some insulation from political pressure, but there was a catch: Trump could still fire him. And Trump clearly knew it, as he repeatedly demanded Comey’s personal loyalty. An early conversation, on January 27th, over dinner in the Green Room of the White House, set the tone: Comey was to answer to Trump, or the F.B.I. director would be gone. As Comey put it, he saw that Trump was trying to set up a “patronage relationship.”
Soon enough, Trump called on Comey’s loyalty. The President was worried about the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation, and he wanted a premature exoneration from Comey. The director hedged, clearly uncomfortable with the demand, but finally told Trump, in rather convoluted ways, that he was not a subject of the investigation—at least not yet.
But the Russia probe continued to worry the President, and soon he had more demands. The climax of Comey’s statement is his cinematic recounting of a meeting with the President in the Oval Office on February 14, 2017. The drama begins after the meeting, when the President instructs the other officials present, including Vice-President Mike Pence, to leave the room. Trump even takes the extraordinary step of asking the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who was Comey’s boss, to go, in order to allow the President to speak with the director alone. Trump then shoos Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, out of the Oval Office, too. (When Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, looks in, a while later, Trump also asks him to stay out of the conversation.) This insistence on a one-on-one meeting suggests what prosecutors like to call “consciousness of guilt.” All these high-ranking officials had clearance to hear anything that Trump might want to say to the director, so the fact that the President wanted them out of earshot would seem to indicate that he knew that what he was telling Comey was wrong—that it was, indeed, an obstruction of justice.
When the two men were alone, Comey writes, Trump asked him to help out the just-fired national-security adviser, Michael Flynn. In Trump’s typical scattershot fashion, he started talking about Flynn, but segued to the subject of leaks, before getting back on topic. In the key passage of Comey’s statement, he writes:
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.”
This part of Comey’s testimony, if it’s accurate, is a smoking gun. The President is instructing his subordinate to stop an F.B.I. investigation of Trump’s close associate.
Comey told the F.B.I. leadership team about Trump’s outrageously improper request, but he did something more, too. When Comey went to see his direct boss, Sessions, he made an urgent request:
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.
The language is uncharacteristic for the lawyerly F.B.I. director: he implored his boss to put a stop to the President’s meddling. But Sessions, a more loyal soldier, said nothing.
The most important piece of evidence in the obstruction case against Trump is actually never mentioned in Comey’s opening statement. That evidence is what occurred on May 9th. Comey had not acceded to the President’s request that he cease the investigation of Flynn and the connection to Russia, and he paid the price with his job. Later, Trump all but confessed that he had rid himself of this meddlesome director because of Russia. He told NBC’s Lester Holt, “When I decided to just do it”—to fire Comey—“I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.’ “ The day after the firing, the President boasted to the visiting Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, saying, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
There is, of course, much more to know about this story. Did Trump use other government officials to try to stymie the Russia investigation? During an Intelligence Committee hearing on Wednesday, senators pressed Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, and Admiral Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, about their contacts with Trump on the issue; they refused to answer. They may eventually tell what they know—as, surely, will others. But the story is now complete in its outline, if not its details, and Trump’s culpability is clear to anyone who cares to look.