James Comey’s testimony before the US Senate committee may herald a new phase in the Trump presidency, writes Christopher Jackson
Well, he didn't disappoint: in fact, the long-awaited showdown on Capitol Hill may have escorted us into a decisive new phase of the Trump presidency. Until this appearance, James Comey was a mere name. Now, following his hearing before the Select Committee on Intelligence, he is a personality.
And it surely doesn’t help the president that he is also an impressive one. Lucid, thoughtful, sane, self-deprecating, Comey is the anti-Trump: it isn’t difficult to see why the pair fell out. In Comey, Trump has come up against a type unfamiliar to him: the stickler for process. Their world-views are inherently opposed: disinterested public service (‘The administration then chose to defame me, and more importantly the FBI,’ said Comey, in a touching moment) versus capitalist opportunism (‘I’m really rich,’ as Trump once put it, with rare clarity).
But in spite of all the theatre of the moment, the parameters of this saga haven’t changed: this matter still comes down to one man’s word against another. It’s only that until this moment we have known a lot more about Trump than Comey. That gap in knowledge has been drastically closed, now that the world has been introduced at such length to a family man of humour, authority, and calm integrity. Given the hucksterish nature of the 45th president, many Americans will have made their minds up: Comey is the more trustworthy of the two. Trump’s approval rating – stubbornly holding to 39 per cent on RealClearPolitics – seems overdue a dip.
Comey looked like he was enjoying himself. ‘Lordy, I hope there are tapes,’ he said, in relation to his private conversations with Trump. When asked about Trump’s request that he drop the probe into Michael Flynn, he referenced Henry II: ‘It rings in my ear: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest!”’ That seemed to place Trump in a useful historical perspective, as just another strongman who finds that the world is a notch less obsequious than he would like – and foolishly goes to war on the point.
And Trump? For once, he was silent, delegating the day’s tweeting duties to his son Donald Jr. But by this morning, Trump had returned to the social media fray, writing: ‘Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication...and WOW, Comey is a leaker!’
But even in the era of Breitbart, reality is stubborn. Trump cannot forever escape, one suspects, whatever actually happened. Besides, the machinery of American government – Comey touted the reassuring presence of Robert Mueller, former FBI director, as special counsel for the Russia investigation – has proven resilient since Trump took office. The question now is not whether Trump can divert justice, but what justice will look like once it arrives.
Coincidentally, obstruction of justice was the first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon. Is there sufficient evidence that Trump has committed any such crime? Alex Whiting, a Harvard law professor and former federal prosecutor, thinks so: ‘…if you take his written and oral testimony together, he [Comey] has now made a prima facie case of obstruction of justice…There was a corrupt intent to impede justice. I think you could charge this case,’ he said.
Of particular legal significance from yesterday’s hearings, is the fact that Trump asked others to leave the room in order to meet Comey alone - the implication is that he did so in order to ask him to drop the Flynn investigation in a suitably intimidatory environment. Further, in relation to Trump's comment that he ‘hoped’ Comey would drop the investigation, the former FBI director made it clear that he had understood the president as having the intent to obstruct justice. That’s bad for Trump: the 2008 case United States of America v. Collin McDonald suggests that using the word ‘hope’ in this context can be the basis for a conviction. Certainly House leader Paul Ryan’s ridiculous excuse, ‘He’s just new to this’ won’t get Trump very far. Presidents are rightly expected to do better.
True, the drama didn’t particularly bother the markets. The dollar index was up a mere 0.25 per cent at 96.99 – a tiny bump. But policy-wise, all this is taking up time: this was also meant to be Trump’s ‘infrastructure’ week. It is looking increasingly probable that the ambitious president will struggle to deliver his Republican wish-list of changes to the tax code.
How this plays out will partly turn on the will of the Democratic Party to push for impeachment. And in the end, what matters is what really transpired between Russia and team Trump ahead of that astounding election in 2016. We still don’t know the answer to that: but Trump has certainly gone to a great deal of trouble to obfuscate it, if the contact was minimal.
Christopher Jackson is head of the Spear’s Research Unit