Politics

James Comey Is Not Alone

The press, anonymous sources, and public testimony have all converged to corroborate the former FBI director’s story about Donald Trump.

James Comey testifies in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee during an oversight hearing on the FBI, on May 3, in Washington.

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The 2016 election and its aftermath have wrecked public faith in institutions. President Trump says you can’t trust the “fake media.” The left says you can’t trust anyone in the Trump administration or the Republican Party. Everyone has attacked the credibility of the country’s most prominent law enforcement officer, former FBI Director James Comey.

But as we learn more about Trump and Russia, a curious thing is happening. The three tarnished institutions—media, government, and law enforcement—are converging. Comey, the press, and people in the Trump administration are telling compatible and often highly similar stories about what’s going on behind the scenes. A common, underlying force—reality—is pulling them together and isolating Trump.

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Three events in less than 24 hours illustrate this convergence. The first was Tuesday night’s Washington Post report on conversations between Trump and senior officials about the Russia investigation. The second was a Wednesday hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, at which some of those officials testified. The third was the committee’s release of Comey’s written testimony, scheduled for delivery Thursday, about his meetings with Trump.

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The Post reported that in late March, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told “associates” about Trump’s efforts to enlist him in protecting Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn. At a March 22 meeting, Trump asked Coats whether he could get Comey to “back off” from investigating Flynn. The Post, citing anonymous officials, reported that Trump asked both Coats and Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, to issue statements “denying the existence of any evidence of coordination between his campaign and the Russian government.” Both men reportedly refused.

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At Wednesday’s hearing, Coats brushed off the Post report. He questioned the paper’s accuracy and pointed to the statement he had provided to the paper, which said that he had “never felt pressured by the president or anyone else in the administration to influence any intelligence matters or ongoing investigations.” Rogers assured the committee that he, too, had never been “directed” to do anything inappropriate and had never felt “pressured” to do so. Andrew McCabe, Comey’s former deputy and now the FBI’s acting director, affirmed his previous testimony that there had been “no effort to impede the Russia investigation.”

The panel of witnesses looked like a united front against the press. But that charade soon dissolved. McCabe explained that when he denied that the investigation was “impeded,” he meant simply that the FBI had continued its work. And as senators sharpened their questions—pressing the witnesses, for example, on whether Trump had “asked you to either downplay the Russia investigation or to directly intervene with Director Comey”—Coats and Rogers declined to answer.

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The unwillingness of Coats and Rogers to address these queries infuriated Democrats on the committee. But with every question they refused, the witnesses exposed what was true, and therefore not safely deniable, in the Post’s reporting. Two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and John McCain, pressed the witnesses on elements of the Post story. When Rogers said he had never been “directed” to do anything improper, Rubio interrupted him: “Not directed. Asked.” Rogers tried to move on without answering the question, but Rubio persisted: “Have you ever been asked to say something that isn’t true?” Rogers’ pitiable reply—“I stand by my previous statement, sir”—was as good as a yes.

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So the Post’s sources had told the truth. Named officials, on camera, were inadvertently conceding as much. But what exactly had Trump said to Coats and Rogers in these secret conversations? A more complete picture emerged after the hearing, when the committee released Comey’s written testimony.

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Comey described several one-on-one conversations with Trump. At a dinner in January, Trump told Comey that many people wanted the FBI director’s job. “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” said the president. When Comey instead offered him “honesty,” Trump paused and replied: “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” Trump seemed morally obtuse but shrewd. His words were corrupt but not prosecutable.

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At their next meeting, on Feb. 14, Trump asked Comey to go easy on Flynn, who had just resigned under pressure for lying about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador. “He is a good guy and has been through a lot,” said Trump. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go.” This time, Trump’s request was more explicit, Comey alleges, but he softened it with concessions about Flynn’s mistakes. If Coats or some other pliable underling had been in Comey’s place, that person might have taken Trump’s words as merciful and pleading.

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On March 30, Trump phoned Comey to complain about the “cloud” of the Russia investigation, which he said was impeding his work for the country. Trump asked why Congress had just held a big hearing on the investigation, at which Comey had testified. He asked Comey “what we could do to ‘lift the cloud.’ ” Again, Trump’s tone was greasy, but he cast himself as a beleaguered public servant and focused on the truest part of his case: that he wasn’t personally under investigation. “We need to get that fact out,” said the president, according to Comey.

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In their last conversation, on April 11, Trump checked in with Comey to find out what the FBI director had had done to “get out” the fact that Trump wasn’t directly under investigation. “I have been very loyal to you,” Trump told Comey. The president ended with a cryptic reference: “We had that thing, you know.”

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Trump’s inveigling and insinuations make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. They alarmed Comey, too. But when you read the full context, you can see how someone with more personal loyalty, a more charitable view of Trump, or more tolerance of meddlesome politicians might take these conversations differently. You realize that Trump probably bitched to Coats and Rogers the way he bitched to Comey. One of them got fired and disclosed what Trump had said. The other two, still in office, deny being ordered or “pressured” to lie or obstruct the investigation, but they won’t say more.

It’s not perfectly consonant, but it fits together. Comey’s testimony fills in the mystery of what Trump might have said to Coats, Rogers, and others. It fleshes out the Post’s reporting. Coats and Rogers, by selectively dodging questions, indirectly back up the Post and its anonymous sources. They also validate Comey. In his testimony, Comey recalls worrying after his Feb. 14 meeting with Trump: “Given that it was a one-on-one conversation, there was nothing available to corroborate my account,” he writes. But Trump’s recidivism provides a kind of corroboration. He leaned on Coats, Rogers, and others, too.

On Thursday, Comey testifies before the committee. Trump and his worst surrogates are already attacking the former FBI director. They think it’s Trump’s word against Comey’s. But it isn’t. It’s Trump’s word against everybody’s. Comey, the press, the anonymous sources, the publicly interrogated officials: In various ways, they’re all telling the same story. It’s about a corrupt president clumsily trying to derail an investigation. It’s the story of a man who took on the truth and lost.

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