In the days since the Senate testimony by former FBI Director James Comey, the Trump camp has claimed that the testimony vindicated the president. Beginning with a tweet by the president the following day, Trump supporters claim “total and complete vindication” from Comey’s statements under oath. However, the claim focuses on only one part of Comey’s testimony and the claim of vindication is for something that Comey never said.
The focus of the Trump Administration since last Thursday when Comey testified was Comey’s statement under oath that President Trump was not under investigation by the FBI. The problem with this claim is that Comey had never claimed that the president was personally under investigation.
It is likely that many people may have assumed after Comey’s Senate testimony in March that President Trump was being investigated, but a look back shows that Comey never made that claim. Comey’s testimony a month before he was fired contained the bombshell revelation that the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign for its links to Russia, but he never said that the president was under direct scrutiny.
Here is a look back at what then-FBI Director James Comey said before Congress on March 20, 2017 (video available here):
I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment as to whether any crimes were committed.
Comey told Congress that the FBI was investigating “individuals associated with the Trump campaign,” not the president. The individuals were left unnamed, but FBI inquiries about Mike Flynn, Carter Page, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort had been known for months. Carter Page was the target of a FISA warrant obtained by the FBI prior to the election last year.
At some point after the March testimony, President Trump apparently became obsessed with the idea of proving that he was not under investigation. Comey testified that he privately assured the president that he was not under investigation on several occasions. Comey also said that the president asked him to publicly announce that he was not under investigation, a request Comey resisted because “because it would create a duty to correct, should that change.” In his letter firing Comey, Trump awkwardly thanks Comey for “informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”
Trump supporters seem to believe that, since the president was not under investigation, that Comey’s firing could not be an obstruction of justice. To the contrary, Trump was alleged to have interfered with the investigation of Michael Flynn, not an investigation into his own ties with Russia. Even though the FBI probe was targeted at Flynn, Page and the others instead of Trump, firing the FBI director to interfere with the investigation could still represent obstruction of justice.
A second trope by Trump supporters is that since Trump was not under investigation, the inquiries by the Congress and the Special Counsel should be halted. This represents a misunderstanding of what the investigations are about. These investigations were also not targeting Trump personally. The purpose of the congressional investigations is to determine exactly what Russia did to interfere in the 2016 elections. The investigation by Special Counsel Bob Mueller focuses on whether any members of the Trump campaign worked with Russian operatives and whether any crimes were committed.
Despite the Trump Administration spin, James Comey’s testimony did not clear the president. In fact, the most damaging part of Comey’s June 8 testimony may be a statement that has scarcely been mentioned. When asked why he thought Trump fired him, Comey answered, “Again, I take the president’s words. I know I was fired because of something about the way I was conducting the Russia investigation was in some way putting pressure on him, in some way irritating him, and he decided to fire me because of that.”
The investigations will continue and President Trump is not in the clear.