Given his legal power over the FBI director — he has the authority to end any investigation, provided the motivation for doing so is not corrupt, and he has the authority to fire the FBI director at will — it is incumbent upon the president to avoid creating any impression of a conflict of interest. Donald Trump did not do that.
However, this is still a far cry from obstruction of justice, as defined by law.
What was almost entirely missing from the hearing was the ostensible center of the Russia investigation — which is Russia itself. Indeed, the last several weeks have signaled a shift in focus of the Democrats and the media from alleged Russia collusion to alleged obstruction. In other words, it’s the supposed cover-up rather than the (so far as we can tell) non-crime.
Although Comey is getting hailed by all the great and good, his own behavior is hardly blameless. One interpretation of his extensive note-taking, coupled with his reluctance to tell his superiors of his concerns about Trump in real time, is that he was saving up ammunition for when it would serve his own purposes. His decision to leak his memos (written to contain no classified information, so they could be spread around as necessary) to the press, instead of taking them to Congress, in order to prompt the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel is a reminder that Comey is a practiced manipulator of the media and the Washington bureaucracy.
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What is needed in the aftermath of the Comey hearing is no different than what was needed all along: a thorough, independent investigation of the swath of concerns raised by Russia’s attempted intrusion into last year’s election.
The right’s defense of Trump — he’s dumb
From the left: Jeet Heer, at the New Republic:
The Republican National Committee has prepared a set of talking points to answer Comey’s testimony on Thursday, but they’re notably incoherent. “President Trump feels completely and totally vindicated by former FBI Director James Comey’s opening testimony and is eager to move forward,” reads the first of the “Top Takeaways,” but a few lines later we’re told: “Director Comey has a long history of blatant contradictions and misstatements.” So is Comey a reliable enough character witness to vindicate Trump, or someone who can’t be trusted? No wonder one Republican told Politico’s Alex Isenstadt that the talking points come from people “living in an alternative reality.”
If the Comey testimony is presenting a problem for the RNC, Republican politicians and sympathetic pundits are coming up with their own separate apologia for Trump: They acknowledge that Trump’s behavior might look fishy, but argue his actions were those of a novice politician who obstructed justice out of sheer stupidity. Ignorant of the basic understanding of the rule of law and the independence of law enforcement, Trump blundered into shady behavior with no malicious intent.
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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of Trump’s strongest champions last year, made this case with characteristic bravado. “What people don’t understand is that they elected an outsider president,” Christie told MSNBC. “They elected someone who had never been inside of government and quite frankly didn’t spend a lot of time interacting with government except at the local level. And so the idea of the way that the tradition of these agencies, it’s not something that he’s ever been steeped in. So I think over the course of time, what you’re seeing is a president who is now very publicly learning about the way people react to what he considers to be normal New York City conversation.”
In one way, this is a very clever rhetorical ploy. Trump’s opponents in Washington, and much of the public, already believe he’s a birdbrain who doesn’t understand government. Often liberals will go further and argue that Trump is either fundamentally stupid or suffers from some sort of cognitive impairment.
Yet in the long run, the position that Trump is ignorant doesn’t really help the president.
Let’s accept, for a moment, the contention that Trump’s mind doesn’t grasp how government works. Isn’t that a good argument for removing him from office? You can’t be impeached for ignorance, but Republican leaders, if they really thought Trump was lacking in the basic knowledge necessary for the job, could approach him to encourage a resignation. Or they could pass laws to limit his powers. Or they could support an opponent to primary him. It’s unlikely that Republicans will do any of these things because the idea of Trump as an airhead innocent is just a political tool for them, not cause for constitutional alarm.
Yes, but when all this is over …
From the center: David Faris, at The Week:
The testimony by former FBI Director James Comey was a typical partisan Rorschach test, with Republicans immediately claiming vindication and Democrats pouncing on his description of what sounds distinctly like the obstruction of justice. The spectacle of Comey calling Trump a liar of questionable character on national television was deeply damaging to the president. Yet Comey also confirmed that when he was fired, Trump himself was not under investigation by the FBI, and surely cheered the Fake News mafia by calling a memorable New York Times story from February basically false. As Real Clear Politics analyst Sean Trende tweeted immediately after the hearing, “Reading right and left Twitter is like journeying between parallel universes.”
Lordy, let there be a parallel universe to which we can all escape from this endless nightmare.
Yet when the Comey dust clears, the biggest problem for both the president and the Republican Party will still be not the Russia investigation, but rather Donald Trump himself. As Comey might adorably say, there’s “no fuzz” on that conclusion. If they are to have any hope of holding the House and Senate against an energized Democratic Party next year, Republicans are going to have to find a convincing answer to one very simple question: Why is the president of the United States so dreadfully unpopular just 140 days into his first term?
For all kinds of reasons, Trump should be rolling. The economy is humming along — perhaps the only fine-tuned machine in sight these days — with unemployment continuing to dip, the stock market reaching record highs (in the middle of the hearing, no less!), and people beyond the 1 percent starting to see economic gains for the first time in years. The Republican Party controls both branches of Congress as well as the presidency and the Supreme Court and could, theoretically, legislate more or less at will. The public is generally forgiving of new presidents, who enjoy a honeymoon period that they have to try really hard to screw up. But this president has been unable to escape the tar patch of an approval rating in the low 40s, and has spent as much time in the upper 30s as he has out of it.
There is only one explanation for why a president with all the prerequisites of massive popularity has instead managed to make lemons out of lemonade: People just don't like this guy. Beyond Trump's base, people are not buying the preposterous narrative that the media is conducting a hostile campaign to destroy the president. President Trump is completely daft and can't go more than a few days without carelessly tossing a lit rhetorical match into a clump of political underbrush. The American people don't seem to enjoy it when their leader is a spiteful mess of a human being who looks like he can barely dress himself, demonstrates almost hourly his incapacity for empathy or civility, and remains utterly, aggressively clueless about his responsibilities and objective realities. You can succeed as a brilliant cad (Bill Clinton), or as a genial lunkhead (Ronald Reagan). It turns out that being both fathomlessly ignorant and aggressively jerkish is not a sweet spot in American politics.