As it turns out, Donald Trump is the hope-and-change president.
According to James Comey, Trump hoped the then-FBI director would find a way to drop his investigation of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn and help blow away “the cloud” concerning the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia. When Comey didn’t, Trump changed Comey — right out of a job.
“You’re fired,” the apprentice-president bravely conveyed to Comey via the very news media he so abhors, except when he doesn’t. Was Trump’s “hope” a “direction,” as Comey testified Thursday that he took it to mean? As in, The Don hopes ol’ Jimmy does the “right” thing. Or was it simply hope? As in, good golly, I hope it doesn’t rain this weekend?
If one were a young child, one might go for the weather-forecast interpretation — because what child wants it to rain on his or her parade? If one were an adult with full knowledge of the president’s pre-political history and the common sense of an investigator, one might reasonably conclude that the hoper-in-chief was making a strong suggestion, the ignoring of which could have dead-horse-in-your-bed consequences.
Comey, obviously, smelled a dead horse.
In his exchanges with the president, he carefully selected his words and took mental notes, after which he wrote down his recollections.
But Comey’s concentration on the president’s hope may have doomed him. Not only did he lose his job, but his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee seemed weak tea in the broader context of the president’s potential criminality. Expressing hope — a word that’s open to interpretation and nowhere near evidence of obstruction of justice — is clearly not a crime.
In his testimony, Comey further revealed he personally had leaked his memos, again to the benighted media via a Columbia University law professor and friend. Comey said he was concerned Trump might lie about their discussions and other details leading up to his firing.
Regarding the two men and whose word to trust, there’s no contest. But often what is obviously wrong isn’t necessarily illegal. I don’t doubt that Trump essentially threatened Comey because that’s what Trump does. (Count his lawsuits if you have a few free months.) Even as Comey testified, the president was regaling the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference with scripture and tough talk: “We know how to fight better than anybody and we never, ever give up — we are winners and we are going to fight.” (Please, please, please read “Elmer Gantry.”)
During the hearing, several senators pressed Comey about why he didn’t ask obvious follow-up questions, as when Trump allegedly said to the director, “We had that thing.” What thing? Comey also might have queried, “Mr. President, what do you mean when you say you ‘hope’?” Or, as various commentators have suggested, why didn’t Comey say, “I’m sorry, Mr. President, but this is highly inappropriate and I’m going to have to excuse myself”?
Ask any reporter, whose skills are essentially investigative, and the answer is: You don’t ever interrupt when the subject is spilling beans. Remember that Flynn was under investigation at the time, as was Trump’s campaign, though apparently not Trump himself. All of this was surely in Comey’s mind when Trump allegedly expressed his hope.
In real life, we rely upon our instincts, experience, interpretation of facial expressions and body language, and historical knowledge to make judgments and instruct our words and actions. We do this usually without conscious effort — unless we’re driven by a purpose.
For Comey, what was the higher moral position? To stop the president of the United States from talking — or keep the conversation going while you gather your wits and see what else might be forthcoming but could aid in an ongoing investigation? Most likely, Comey’s mind was frantically trying to assess the situation and wondering Lordy, why didn’t I wear a wire?
He hinted as much Thursday, albeit with weirdly undermining self-deprecations. Comey said he felt he needed to pay attention and was too stunned to react to the “hope” comment. “Maybe if I was stronger,” he said, explaining why he didn’t ask “what thing?” Please. What’s with the 6-foot-8-inch weakling act from a man routinely praised for his brilliance and integrity? Why telegraph feebleness to Trump, his lawyers and a skeptical public if he’s secure in his rectitude?
Presumably, Comey was trying to convey his humility juxtaposed with the steamrolling Trump. What Comey may be constitutionally unable to fully grasp, however, is that integrity is no weapon in a knife fight.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.