James Comey’s Testimony to Congress

I’m guessing this might receive a lot of attention, so I’m creating a separate thread for this (which I will like to this tread). To start, here’s Comey’s opening statement, annotated by The Atlantic Monthly. Next, this National Review article by Dan McLauhglin basically describes my reaction to Comey’s opening statement. The last paragraph does a fairly decent job of summing up the statement:

The narrative the Democrats desperately want is that Trump is under FBI investigation for criminal activity that invalidates the 2016 election, and has committed impeachable offenses. The facts they actually have are a lot less sexy: a president who wouldn’t respect the FBI’s independence and couldn’t understand why the FBI Director couldn’t publicly exonerate him when he wasn’t under investigation. But those facts are ugly enough in what they say about Trump’s ability to run a government that inspires confidence in the impartial administration of justice.

Actually, that first sentence does not describe my position. It’s not crucial to me that the FBI is investigating Trump, himself, nor am I am looking to invalidate the election results. However, I am looking for impeachable offenses. I don’t think Comey’s opening statement rises to that level, not by itself.

Also, I think McLaughlin downplays the severity of not respecting the FBI’s independence.

Benjamin Wittes, from Lawfareblog does the opposite in his initial reaction. He also offers a very different view of whether Comey confirms Trump’s claim that he wasn’t under investigation. My reading is closer to McLaughlin’s (with the provisos I mentioned). Wittes’s take seems like he’s being being too technical. Here’s what he says:

Finally, there’s Comey’s clarification of what Trump appears to have meant when he wrote in his letter dismissing Comey that Comey informed him “on three separate occasions … that I am not under investigation.” I wrote about what those interactions may have consisted of some time back, arguing that it was simply inconceivable that Comey would have told the President his conduct was not at issue in any of the probes under way. Suffice it to say that the reality is rather closer to my hypotheses about what happened than it is to Trump’s characterization. Keep in mind, as I pointed out in that piece, that counter-intelligence investigations are subject specific; that is, they are focused on individuals, not on crimes. Comey makes this point in his statement as well, and it is critical to understanding these interactions.

Wittes goes on to give three examples from Comey’s opening testimony to bolster his point, but I don’t see how it does. (I hope others can read both articles by Wittes and help me understand Wittes’s position, because I don’t get it. Wittes seems wrong to me.) Later, Wittes says,

Put simply, this emphatically does not amount to Trump’s blanket statement that he was assured multiple times that he was not under investigation. Trump might have been on solid ground in his letter firing Comey had he written that “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that none of the investigations involving my campaign, my subordinates, or my companies at the present time involves an open counterintelligence case directed at me personally.” Somehow, however, that lacks the self-exculpating ring the President seems to have been going for.

The above is what I mean by getting too technical. Again, if any of you has time, please read Comey’s opening testimony and Wittes’s two posts and explain to me how Wittes is right.

Edit (6/9/2017)

5 Responses to “James Comey’s Testimony to Congress”

  1. Reid

    Jack Goldsmith responds to Benjamin Wittes’s post. He reacts in the same way I did to Wittes’s read on Comey’s vindication that Trump, himself, isn’t under investigation:

    This seems nit-picky to the point of wrong, at least based on the Comey statement. Regardless of what Comey intended, we don’t have any reason to think that Comey distinguished in his comments to Trump between a counter-intelligence investigation and some other type of investigation. And Comey himself said that he told the President that he was not under investigation concerning “possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.” It is easy to see how the President might interpret that statement as meaning that he was not under investigation in connection with the Russia matter, period.

    On an unrelated note, Goldsmith comments on the opinion that Trump sees and understands his role more as a dictatorial CEO than an executive in a constitutional system. This is my impression as well, and here’s what Goldsmith (former attorney in the Bush 43 administration):

    Trump does not remotely understand his role, status, and duties as President and Chief Executive, and this failure infects or undermines just about everything he does. It is an amazing state of affairs: A President of the United States who does not at all grasp the Office he occupies, and who thus entirely lacks the proper situation sense, or contextual knowledge, in which a President should exercise judgment or act. Let that sink in, and then imagine all of the decisions a President must make, all that he is responsible for. This reflection is the main reason why I have come to believe that the President does not deserve a presumption of regularity in his actions—not just by courts with respect to the immigration executive orders, but by the public more generally with respect to “everything the Executive does that touches, however lightly, the President.”


  2. Reid

    Why James Comey Thinks Russian Interference in Our Election is a Big Deal

    From a transcript of James Comey’s testimony to Congress today:

    The reason this is such a big deal. We have this big messy wonderful country where we fight with each other all the time. But nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for except other Americans. And that’s wonderful and often painful. But we’re talking about a foreign government that using technical intrusion, lots of other methods tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. And people need to recognize it. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally. They want to undermine our credibility in the face the world. They think that this great experiment of ours is a threat to them. So they’re going to try to run it down and dirty it up as much as possible. That’s what this is about and they will be back. Because we remain — as difficult as we can be with each other, we remain that shining city on the hill. And they don’t like it.

    Here’s a video. Senator Manchin (WV) asks two questions: why Americans should be concerned about Russian interference in our election (and the Russian investigation) and whether President Trump ever showed any concern or interest in Russian interference.

    Some quick thoughts:

    But nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for except other Americans.

    Yep. It should be said that other nations try to make their views heard, in order to achieve their interests, but, primarily, Americans are–or should be–the key actors in our political discourse. And Americans, alone, should determine the outcome of our elections. Conservatives, Liberals, and Moderates–all Americans should be united on these issues.

    But we’re talking about a foreign government that using technical intrusion, lots of other methods tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. And people need to recognize it.

    Yep. I wish Comey could have fleshed this out more. I think the American public needs to have this matter fleshed out more so that they have a good understanding of what’s going on.

    They want to undermine our credibility in the face the world. They think that this great experiment of ours is a threat to them.

    Why is America a threat to Putin–and other autocrats? Because if American works–that is, our system of government and society–then Russians and other people around the world will want this as well. The American system of government is (as far as I know) the ultimate, anti-autocratic system (which is being put to the test now). Therefore, if people who live under an autocratic ruler want our type of system that’s a threat to these rulers.

    On the other hand, if our system is dysfunctional–if autocrats can create the impression that our system is no different from autocratic governments–then this helps keep autocrats safe. This is why Russia is tyring to, in Comey’s words, “run it down and dirty it up as much as possible.” They want to undermine our system by undermining the trust in our institutions and politicians; they will try to find divisions–between the left and right, between parties, between whites and minorities, Christians and Muslims–and exacerbate and widen these differences.

    How can they do this? They can do this because many people get their information and political discourse online, and this information environment turbocharges Russian influence campaigns. This is something else Americans need to understand a lot better.

    Comey said we’re a “big messy country.” I’d compare it to a big messy family, with constant bickering. Russia is like a devious outsider who seeks to manipulate and widen existing tensions and conflicts to weaken and even tear a part the family. We have real disagreements in our nation. And we have legitimate criticisms against our government, politicians and democratic institutions. But we can’t let a hostile foreign power manipulate and exploit these things to tear us a part. Indeed, I think we need to put a moratorium on some of these disputes, unite, and turn our attention to this hostile outsider. They’ve been kicking our ass. It’s time to do a little ass-kicking ourselves.

    (Note: One thing I disagree about. Comey said Russia will be back. I don’t think they left. This is an ongoing subversive attack, one not limited to just elections.)


    McKew is referring to a Senator Angus King’s question: “What do you know about the Russian bank VEB?”

    Comey: Nothing that I can talk about in an open setting….I know it exists.

    That seemed pretty ominous to me. The only thing he allowed himself to say is that he knows of its existence, which suggested everything else he knows is classified information? Whoa. And the President of the bank, Gorkov, is the person Kushner (and Flynn?) met after Kushner supposedly recommended setting up a secret back channel to Kislyak, the Russian ambassador.

  3. Reid

    David Simon, former reporter and creator of the HBO TV series, The Wire on what we can learn about what Trump knows and doesn’t know based on his interactions with Comey.

    Thread: A year with some good detectives taught me that often WHAT ISN’T SAID is the actual tell. And note what isn’t discussed between Trump and Comey. At no point does Trump make any concerted effort to discern whether or not Russia did in fact attempt to interfere in the election. Indeed, he notes that the claim has created a cloud over his governance — so he can scarcely say that it isn’t of real concern to him; his concern is premised in this meeting. Yet, he doesn’t inquire as to what Comey and the FBI is yet discerning about Russia’s role. He doesn’t even do so as a means of disparaging the claim. (i.e. “I’m sure you’re finding out that there’s nothing to the claims of Russian interference, right?” It. Doesn’t. Come. Up. In this regard, I am reminded of every innocent and guilty man I ever witnessed in an interrogation room. The innocent ask a multitude of questions about what the detectives know, or why the cops might think X or Y or whether Z happened to the victim. The guilty forget to inquire. They know. An old law school saw tells young trial lawyers to remind their clients to stay curious in front of a jury. There’s a famous tale of a murder case in which the body of the defendant’s wife had not been recovered yet he was charged with the killing. Defense attorney tells the jury in final argument there’s been no crime and the supposed victim will walk through the courtroom doors in 10 seconds. 30 seconds later the door remains shut. “Ok, she isn’t coming today. But the point is all of you on jury looked, and that my friends is reasonable doubt. You must acquit.” Jury comes back in twenty minutes: Guilty. Attorney goes to the foreman: “I thought I had you.” Foreman: “You had me and ten others. But juror number 8 didn’t look at the door, he looke at your client. And he didn’t eye the door, he was examining his nails.” Even when he was completely alone with Comey, Trump didn’t look at the door. He eyed his nails. It’s an absolute tell. Why? Because Trump already knows that there is some fixed amount of Russian interference on his behalf, and possibly, collusion as well.

    Who knows if this is true? But the thinking seems sound, and it’s fascinating in any event.


  4. Reid

    On Comey’s “Vindication” of Trump

    Trump tweeted:

    Responses (warning, snark ahead):

  5. Reid

    On Whether Comey Violated Executive Privileged or “Leaked” Information

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