Lawfare editor-in-chief Ben Wittes describes former FBI Director James Comey’s written testimony about his interactions with President Donald Trump as “the most shocking single document compiled about the official conduct of the public duties of any president since the release of the Watergate tapes.”
The testimony, released Wednesday, details how Trump demanded “loyalty” from Comey months before deciding to fire him. It describes how Trump personally pressured Comey to stop an investigation into his former campaign adviser and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. It contains Comey’s remembrances about the numerous occasions Trump asked him to publicly clear his name.
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said of the testimony, “If this isn’t obstruction of justice, I don’t know what is.”
The revelations documented by Comey ahead of his testimony before an open session at the U.S. Senate on Thursday left the GOP scrambling to deflect or minimize the former FBI director’s account. The Republican Party’s official Twitter account responded to Comey’s testimony with a dismissive meme.
Trying to find something of substance in Comey’s opening statement like pic.twitter.com/igLC4JPREg
— GOP (@GOP) June 7, 2017
A GOP email blast sent to reporters shortly before that tweet was posted framed Comey’s testimony as actually exonerating Trump.
Citing snippets from the document, the email says that Comey’s testimony “will confirm what Democrats and the media have been denying for weeks: That Comey did in fact tell the president three times that he was not under investigation.”
The Republican National Committee amplified that talking point in a statement.
Statement from RNC chair McDaniel here makes it tough for Trump/White House/RNC to try and undermine Comey credibility tomorrow/moving fwd > pic.twitter.com/eDaDtFCGIV
— Gabriel Debenedetti (@gdebenedetti) June 7, 2017
As did Trump-supporting members of Congress like Rep. Peter King (R-NY).
Reality check: Comey testimony – he told @POTUS Trump he was not being investigated; POTUS did not ask him to stop Russia investigation.
— Rep. Pete King (@RepPeteKing) June 7, 2017
New Jersey Governor and Trump confidante Chris Christie (R) went a step further. During an MSNBC interview, Christie said Trump’s comments to Comey were merely “normal New York City conversation” and represented the president’s desire to “get to the bottom of things.”
So did Fox News, whose coverage of Comey’s testimony focused on the former FBI director telling Trump he wasn’t personally under investigation, and on his claim that Trump asked him to get the FBI to “drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.”
Fox News host Harris Faulkner and reporter John Roberts spun that as exonerating Trump of obstruction of justice, since he didn’t ask Comey to “back off the entire Flynn investigation and the entire Russia” probe too.
Wittes takes a very different view. With regard to Trump’s “serial investigative inquiries made directly of the FBI,” he writes that “[i]t’s hard to express to people who are not steeped in federal law enforcement just how inappropriate these inquiries are, particularly when they involve an investigation in which the President has such deep and multifaceted personal stakes.” Wittes cites recent comments from former Bush administration Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former Obama administration White House Counsel Neil Eggleston as supporting his position.
Norm Eisen, chief ethics counsel for Obama, also views Comey’s testimony as a bombshell.
— Zach Wolf (@zbyronwolf) June 7, 2017
As does former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
Obstruction aside, it's NEVER ok for a POTUS privately to ask an FBI Director to drop a criminal investigation. Extraordinary, wrong & dumb. https://t.co/Axwjoaw8F7
— Preet Bharara (@PreetBharara) June 7, 2017
White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders questioned the timing of Comey’s introductory statement dropping on the same day that intelligence officials refused to answer questions from senators about their interactions with Trump, telling reporters on Air Force One that she “did find the timing of the release a little bit interesting.” She declined to go into further detail, saying White House officials were still reviewing the document.
The Great America Alliance, a pro-Trump PAC, created an attack ad, titled “Showboat,” that smears Comey for allegedly “putting politics over protecting America” and “being consumed with election meddling.” The ad reportedly is set to run during national TV coverage of Comey’s testimony on Thursday.
Huckabee Sanders’ concerns about timing are ironic, given the timeline presented by Comey. Comey writes that the dinner during which Trump asked him to pledge loyalty to him took place on January 27 — the day after former acting Attorney General Sally Yates personally informed the White House about evidence that Flynn had lied to the FBI about his pre-inauguration communications with the Russian ambassador, and was therefore at risk of being blackmailed by Russia. Yates’ warning came nearly three weeks before Flynn was finally fired by President Trump.
UPDATE: Trump’s lawyer has weighed in with a statement:
— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) June 7, 2017