The Senate Intelligence Committee just published former FBI Director James Comey’s opening statement for tomorrow’s hearing, and it’s a damning document.
It’s not damning in the sense of President Trump committing a crime, or attempting to obstruct justice. There’s no evidence of that in Comey’s account.
What it does show is a president with no working knowledge of the FBI’s purpose, mandate, or value as an independent investigatory arm of the federal government. It shows a president whose understanding of what it means to be president is something akin to a king over a royal court. It shows a man obsessed with his personal image and relationships.
It shows a worried, thin-skinned, petty, and clueless man who doesn’t deserve the trust of those who operate in the public interest.
In short, it makes Trump look clueless, and that’s damning.
I felt compelled to document my first conversation with the President-Elect in a memo. To ensure accuracy, I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting. Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward. This had not been my practice in the past. I spoke alone with President Obama twice in person (and never on the phone) – once in 2015 to discuss law enforcement policy issues and a second time, briefly, for him to say goodbye in late 2016. In neither of those circumstances did I memorialize the discussions. I can recall nine one-on-one conversations with President Trump in four months – three in person and six on the phone.
Lawyers resort to memorializing every conversation immediately following in a few situations. One is when they meet one-on-one with clients who pay them for representation (for obvious reasons). Another is when they meet with other lawyers or parties in negotiation–typically these are short notes or emails to the other lawyer to ensure everyone’s on the same page.
A third scenario is when they are meeting one-on-one (without corroborating witnesses) with unreliable people, whose version of events may prove troubling in their work. Or when people in positions of power (such as politicians) attempt to manipulate or influence them improperly in such meetings. These memos are, in technical legal terms, called “C-Y-A” (I jest, but not too much).
Comey felt compelled to write a C-Y-A memo every time he interacted with President Trump. The head of the FBI felt that Trump was manipulative, using pretense to gain a “patronage relationship,” and ignoring every fence and guardrail of proper lines of communication to achieve a particular result.
My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.
At an oval office meeting on Feb. 14, attended by at least four high-ranking lawyers (Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, senior adviser Jared Kushner, and Comey), the president dismissed everyone, including Comey’s boss, AG Sessions, to talk to Comey alone. Not only is this beyond awkward, it’s also completely improper.
Alone with Comey, Trump said he wanted to talk about Mike Flynn, who had resigned one day earlier.
The President then made a long series of comments about the problem with leaks of classified information – a concern I shared and still share. After he had spoken for a few minutes about leaks, Reince Priebus leaned in through the door by the grandfather clock and I could see a group of people waiting behind him. The President waved at him to close the door, saying he would be done shortly. The door closed.
The cringes and breath-holding in that hallway had to be excruciating. It paints a picture of a man whom everyone is scared to tell “this is a really bad idea,” lest they invite the rage of Poseidon on themselves.
The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, “He is a good guy and has been through a lot.” He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied only that “he is a good guy.” (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would “let this go.”
The president that Comey came to know better than the man who appointed him to office–President Obama–is, to him, a man who cannot be trusted. He’s a man who doesn’t know the boundaries of his own office, or the reason certain actions or statements are simply wrong or unethical.
To Comey, this is a man who values personal loyalty, relationships, and image over truth or integrity. Why else would Comey feel compelled to document, as close to the event as possible, every single conversation with Trump?
Whatever questions follow this positively devastating statement by Comey at Thursday’s hearing, every lawyer, government official, or potential appointee under Trump has to get the message. To paraphrase: Be careful dealing with this man, as he’s a worried, clueless, untrustworthy man who will try to manipulate you into compromising yourself.