Politics

Memogogues

The Republican hit job on the Comey memos.

Trey Gowdy stands behind a podium, wearing a lavender tie.
Rep. Trey Gowdy on Capitol Hill on June 28, 2016.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Rep. Trey Gowdy, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, says he’s leaving politics to escape the corruption of partisanship. “I enjoy being fair. I enjoy the pursuit of fairness as a virtue,” Gowdy told CBS News in February. In Washington, he lamented, there’s no place for a truth-teller like himself. Perhaps, then, Gowdy can explain why he has teamed up with two other chairmen, Devin Nunes of the House Intelligence Committee and Bob Goodlatte of the House Judiciary Committee, to issue a statement full of lies about James Comey.

Gowdy, Goodlatte, and Nunes have been pressuring the Department of Justice to release memos, written between January and April 2017, in which Comey, who was then the FBI director, described his meetings and phone calls with President Donald Trump. On Thursday, the department gave the memos to Congress, which promptly leaked them. House Republicans, who used to insist that the memos were so laden with national secrets that Comey should be prosecuted for leaking them, have now dragged them out into the open. Why? The answer seems to lie in the canned statement from Gowdy, Goodlatte, and Nunes, which portrays the memos as proof of Trump’s innocence.

The statement claims that Comey’s memos “show the President made clear he wanted allegations of collusion, coordination, and conspiracy between his campaign and Russia fully investigated.” That’s laughable. The memos describe repeated, explicit pressure from Trump to “lift the cloud” of the investigation. One memo recounts how Trump shooed everyone but Comey out of an Oval Office meeting and asked him several times to drop the FBI’s investigation of departing National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, who had misled the FBI about contacts with Russia. Not until March 30, 2017—six weeks after Trump’s move to protect Flynn and two weeks before Trump’s final conversation with Comey—did Trump say anything positive about the investigation. In that phone call, Trump told Comey, as an aside, that if “some satellite” had done anything wrong, it would be good to know. The comment was indecipherable, and Trump offered it only as part of a pitch to have the FBI director declare him innocent.

The Gowdy-Goodlatte-Nunes statement says the memos “made clear the ‘cloud’ President Trump wanted lifted was not the Russian interference in the 2016 election cloud” but rather “the salacious, unsubstantiated allegations related to personal conduct leveled in the dossier.” This, too, is demonstrably false. Trump did fret to Comey about allegations that Trump had used prostitutes in Moscow in 2013. But Comey’s March 30, 2017, memo, in which he records Trump’s comments about the “cloud,” describes a much larger context:

The President … said he was trying to run the country and the cloud of this Russia business was making that difficult. He said he thinks he would have won the health care vote but for the cloud. He then went on at great length, explaining that he has nothing to do with Russia (has a letter from the largest law firm in DC saying he has gotten no income from Russia), was not involved with hookers in Russia. … He finished by stressing that he was trying to make deals for the country, the cloud was hurting him (and mentioned going to G-7 with it hanging over him), and he hoped I could find a way to get out that he wasn’t being investigated.

Gowdy’s theory is that when Trump spoke of a cloud that was impeding his work at the G-7, on trade deals, and on health care, he was talking about a pee tape. That’s absurd. And why would Trump cite a letter about his income stream to rebut allegations about a hooker’s outgo stream? Did Gowdy not read this statement before he put his name on it? Did he not read the memos? Or does he think we can’t spot the differences?

“Comey never wrote that he felt obstructed or threatened,” says the statement. At best, that sentence is willfully obtuse. The memos document Trump’s efforts to corrupt Comey. Trump pressed him for “loyalty,” told him he could easily be replaced, and asked him to drop the Flynn investigation. Again and again, Trump maneuvered to get Comey alone—at a dinner, after a briefing, in phone calls—and leaned on him. Every detail Comey recorded—verbatim requests, threatening hints, facial expressions, body language—is what you’d record if you felt you were being encouraged and coerced to betray your law enforcement duties.

The memos show “two different standards,” Gowdy and his colleagues allege. Comey “immediately began to memorialize conversations with President Trump,” they protest, but the FBI director didn’t write similar memos about his “conversations with President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, Secretary Clinton, Andrew McCabe or others.” Comey has repeatedly explained that he took notes about his conversations with Trump because Trump, unlike other officials, behaved suspiciously with him. Gowdy ignores this explanation, as though it’s unfair to treat people differently based on conduct. He and his colleagues complain, in effect, that a cop documented—not surveilled, not audio-recorded, but simply wrote down—the behavior of a person he suspected of wrongdoing.

The statement concludes that Comey’s memos show he was:

motivated by animus. He was willing to work for someone he deemed morally unsuited for office, capable of lying, requiring of personal loyalty, worthy of impeachment, and sharing the traits of a mob boss. Former Director Comey was willing to overlook all of the aforementioned characteristics in order to keep his job. In his eyes, the real crime was his own firing.

What a remarkable piece of dishonesty. The memos are contemporaneous. Comey wrote them while Trump was lying to him and demanding personal loyalty. They can’t be about the firing, because Comey wasn’t fired until a month after the last memo was written.

Comey did what a good cop would do: He recorded Trump’s attempts to corrupt him. He wrote six memos about it. Gowdy looks at these memos and declares that the man who wrote them was “willing to overlook” what he saw. In what universe is that anything but a lie? And if Comey hadn’t been “willing to work” for Trump, how would we know about Trump’s efforts to suborn the FBI director? Isn’t the complaint that Comey was “willing to work” for Trump just a restatement of the fact that he was in the room?

Gowdy, Goodlatte, and Nunes are in charge, respectively, of committees on oversight, the judiciary, and intelligence. They’re supposed to protect national security, monitor government misconduct, and uphold the rule of law. Their hit job on Comey and his memos mocks these responsibilities. It shows that as long as Republicans hold Congress, they’ll serve not as a check on a corrupt president, but as his accomplices and lawyers.

Remember that when Gowdy retires. He wasn’t part of the solution. He was part of the problem. “Why are you getting out of this racket?” Alisyn Camerota asked him two months ago, when he announced he was done with Congress. “I miss the justice system,” Gowdy replied. “I like jobs where facts matter.” Sorry, Trey, but you never understood the job. Facts matter in Congress, too. They just didn’t matter to you.