Leading Iowa Republicans appeared to be in a competition yesterday for the most shameful way to react to former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Should they:
A. Defend President Donald Trump for demanding personal loyalty from a senior law enforcement official;
B. Focus on alleged wrongdoing by Comey, not by the president who “hoped” the FBI would drop a criminal investigation into his former national security adviser;
C. Declare the controversy over Trump’s involvement with Russia settled; or
D. Hide from reporters seeking comment on the biggest news story of the week?
“Bombshell” is an overused word in political journalism, but Comey’s prepared testimony was stunning, and I recommend reading it in full, especially if you missed the June 8 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing (video here).
Comey had more one-on-one conversations with Trump in four months than he had had with all other previous presidents he encountered. He took detailed notes following all such conversations with Trump, thinking (with good reason) that the president might later misrepresent the substance of the discussions.
Among the more incriminating details: in January, Trump invited Comey to a private dinner, seemed to be leading him to ask to keep his job, then repeatedly told the FBI director he needed “loyalty.” In February, the president directed others to leave the room (showing awareness that it would be better not to have witnesses to what he was about to say), then told Comey, in reference to the FBI’s criminal investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, “I hope you can let this go.” In March, Trump called the FBI director and badgered him to “lift the cloud” by announcing that the president was not personally under investigation. Comey explained in his written account of the March 30 phone call why he declined to do so:
Then the President asked why there had been a congressional hearing about Russia the previous week – at which I had, as the Department of Justice directed, confirmed the investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. I explained the demands from the leadership of both parties in Congress for more information, and that Senator Grassley had even held up the confirmation of the Deputy Attorney General until we briefed him in detail on the investigation. I explained that we had briefed the leadership of Congress on exactly which individuals we were investigating and that we had told those Congressional leaders that we were not personally investigating President Trump. I reminded him I had previously told him that. He repeatedly told me, “We need to get that fact out.” (I did not tell the President that the FBI and the Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change.)
Representative Steve King didn’t wait to hear Comey answer questions from senators before defending Trump in an interview with National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep yesterday morning.
S. KING: […] But when I see, you know, the language in there when the president said to Comey, I need loyalty, I’m not alarmed by that. The president does need loyalty. He has people that are turning on him, and they’re leaking from inside the White House. They were leaking from the intelligence community. And it’s undermining our national security. And it’s stalling the agenda that the American people voted for, so…
INSKEEP: I understand your concern about leaking, but should a president be asking an FBI director who’s supposed to be independently investigating people close to the president, should he be repeatedly asking that person for loyalty and to drop investigations?
S. KING: Well, you put that kind of into a package there, but was that the flow of the conversation? And I think probably not. I think it’s fine for the president to have a conversation with, for example, with James Comey. And when he said, I hope you can let this go, that’s far from a directive. And if Comey is intimidated by that or if he thought that that was an order, he should have asked, Mr. President, is that an order? That’d be a different story, but it was just a suggestion. And I think that’s just a management style.
And, by the way, the, you know, the one-on-one dinner that he set up, there’s been a lot of focus on that. But Donald Trump does that. He calls people, and he says, oh, let’s sit down. Let’s have dinner over it. If you want to have a conversation, let’s have dinner over it. He’s asked me to do that, and I don’t think there’s anything nefarious about it. I think it’s his style.
During the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, King seized on Comey’s admission that he passed a (non-classified) memo to journalists through a friend.
#ComeyDay just confessed he leaked his own memo through a law professor! Comey confessed to using his own leak(s) as political weapon(s).
— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) June 8, 2017
Later in the day, King followed the official line pushed by Trump’s personal lawyer, who alleged in a “hastily drafted” and poorly-proofread statement that Comey had revealed “privileged communications.” (No, Trump did not invoke executive privilege, which wouldn’t have covered his one-on-one conversations with Comey in any event.)
How could Comey investigate felony leaks of classified information when he is a self confessed leaker of WH "privileged communications."
— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) June 8, 2017
Like King, Senator Chuck Grassley didn’t seem to find anything inappropriate about Trump’s behavior toward Comey–not a surprise, given his past statements about the president’s conduct toward the FBI director. In an interview shortly after the Intelligence Committee hearing wrapped up, the senator focused on Comey’s reluctance to assist the White House public relations campaign. From Jason Noble’s report for the Des Moines Register:
“So if a president of a United States is not under investigation, then you wonder why was he hesitant to tell the American people that the president wasn’t under investigation,” Grassley said Thursday afternoon during an interview on Iowa Public Radio’s “River to River” program. “Because a cloud over the president, as president of the United States, is a very detrimental thing if people think he’s being investigated but he’s not being investigated.” […]
In a follow-up statement provided to the Des Moines Register, a spokesman for Grassley said the senator has long called on the FBI and Department of Justice to provide more information on “matters of intense public interest” and argued that Comey’s silence allowed “conspiracy theories and wild speculation” to “run rampant.”
“If that transparency requires corrections along the way, so be it,” the spokesman, Michael Zona said.
Keep in mind, Grassley voted to remove President Bill Clinton from office over “high crimes and misdemeanors” that pale in comparison to what we already know about Trump’s efforts to influence the Russia investigation.
Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, commented yesterday, “Comparing this to Nixon is unfair. Nixon did not obstruct an investigation of Russian subversive activity or any other threat to US security.”
Representative Rod Blum (IA-01) has mostly avoided commenting on the Trump/Russia scandal for months. Yesterday, this member of the House Oversight Committee (!) was ready to declare the matter settled.
— Congressman Rod Blum (@RepRodBlum) June 8, 2017
Never mind the many undisclosed meetings between Trump associates and senior Russian officials, which Flynn, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not mention on their security clearance forms. Never mind Trump revealing secrets to senior Russian leaders during an Oval Office meeting, or plans by White House officials to return Russia’s listening posts and lift sanctions on our foreign adversary. Never mind that, as Comey made clear, FBI investigators thought it possible Trump might become a subject of the investigation later. Let’s all move on.
Representative David Young (IA-03) revealed yet again yesterday why he will never win a prize for political bravery. Dodging Noble’s request for comment, “An aide said he attended two House hearings on Thursday morning, including one in which he heard testimony from Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.” Who believes Young hasn’t read Comey’s testimony and has no opinion on a story of obvious national importance?
When Noble called Young out on Twitter for not responding, Young’s chief of staff James Carstensen insisted that the congressman “did respond” (by relaying through staff that he didn’t watch Comey’s hearing). Carstensen has blown off my inquiries for years, beginning when he worked for Representative Tom Latham. Jerking around the chief politics reporter for Iowa’s leading newspaper shows a higher level of commitment to hiding Young’s views from the public.
For my money, the most dishonorable Iowa reaction to Comey’s testimony came from state Republican Party chair Jeff Kaufmann.
“We had breaking news come out of the Comey testimony today, but much to the chagrin of Iowa and National Democrats, it puts a dent in conspiracy theories they’ve been peddling since their impressive loss last year,” said RPI Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. “What we learned today was there was no evidence of collusion, no evidence of anyone doing anything to impede the investigations, that President Trump isn’t under investigation, and if anything, that we should be looking into Comey for leaking his own internal memos and the Obama Department of Justice for influencing and impeding the investigation into Hillary’s emails. Despite their profound disappointment with today’s testimony, I’m sure Democrats will have no trouble finding another conspiracy theory to console themselves with.”
Kaufmann’s riding high now, but he is smart enough to understand that lying under oath about contacts with foreign officials and trying to impede an FBI investigation are serious offenses, even if even if Congressional Republicans never hold Trump or his associates accountable. As a part-time history professor, Kaufmann should know that future historians will record which Republicans stood up for the rule of law and which showed they put party before country.
Of Iowa’s most prominent Republicans, only Senator Joni Ernst released a not-disgraceful comment yesterday:
I’m pleased that Mr. Comey testified today before the Senate Intelligence Committee where my colleagues had the opportunity to ask him questions about his written statement under oath. It’s important that we know all of the facts before formulating any conclusions on this matter. We must let the Special Counsel and bipartisan congressional investigations continue in earnest and follow the facts where they lead.
Far from a profile in courage, but much better than reflexively defending the president.
Iowa’s Democratic Representative Dave Loebsack (IA-02) called for an independent commission, noting “It is especially worrisome that President Trump attempted to use his position to influence ongoing investigations.” An independent commission would be able to investigate the Trumpworld/Russia connections more broadly than special counsel Robert Mueller, who will focus narrowly on prosecutable criminal acts.
Former U.S. Representative Bob Inglis, who voted to impeach Clinton in 1999, had wise words for his fellow Republicans:
Defenders @GOP beware: Comey only said Trump not under investigation re Russian prostitutes dossier. Election-meddling investigation ongoing
— Bob Inglis (@bobinglis) June 8, 2017
Comey is right: This is about America. Rs need to be ready to put country above party. Did so with Nixon. Need to do so now. #comeyday
— Bob Inglis (@bobinglis) June 9, 2017
— Bob Inglis (@bobinglis) June 9, 2017
.@SpeakerRyan and if the investigation leads to the Pres., his family or his campaign, so be it. Don't obstruct justice. Put country first.
— Bob Inglis (@bobinglis) June 9, 2017
Iowa’s Republicans are hardly unique in circling the wagons rather than admitting they heard troubling details from Comey. From Peter Baker’s latest article in the New York Times:
Indeed, Mr. Comey highlighted the difference by noting that he had never taken notes of his conversations with either of those presidents because he trusted their basic integrity, but he did write memos about each of his one-on-one encounters with Mr. Trump because “I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting.”
In any other presidency, the events laid out by Mr. Comey — Mr. Trump asking for “loyalty” from the F.B.I. director who was investigating the president’s associates, then asking him to drop an investigation into a former aide and ultimately firing him when he did not — might have spelled the end. […]
“This is like an explosive presidency-ending moment,” said John Q. Barrett, a law professor at St. John’s University in New York and an associate independent counsel during the Iran-contra investigation in Ronald Reagan’s presidency. “But we have a different context now.”
The articles of impeachment drafted against President Richard M. Nixon and Mr. Clinton both alleged obstruction of justice, in effect making clear that such an action could qualify under the “high crimes and misdemeanors” clause of the Constitution. The “smoking gun” tape that doomed Mr. Nixon in 1974 recorded him ordering his chief of staff to have the C.I.A. block the F.B.I. from investigating the Watergate burglary. Critics said that Mr. Trump’s comments to Mr. Comey effectively cut out the middle man.
For more on why Comey’s testimony points to obstruction of justice by Trump, read this article by Charlie Savage for the New York Times or this commentary by Norman Eisen and Noah Bookbinder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Others who will be called to testify under oath about this matter had better be very careful, Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman reported for the New York Times.
Several current and former Trump aides said they were especially concerned about Mr. Kasowitz’s unqualified assertion that the president had “never told Mr. Comey, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,’” as Mr. Comey said on Thursday.
“I can’t believe they are worried about public opinion on a day like this, when Comey set so many perjury traps for them,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a veteran Democratic operative who served as Mrs. Clinton’s communications director during the 2016 campaign.
“Communications and news cycles don’t matter — they don’t know what is going to hit them,” added Ms. Palmieri, who served in the White House during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. “They are still telling the president what he wants to hear, and that’s extraordinarily dangerous.”
Special counsel Mueller will likely unearth more documents and testimony supporting Comey’s account. But I’m not confident any set of facts could induce top Iowa Republicans to stop playing loyal foot soldiers for the White House. That’s not just extraordinarily dangerous, it’s extraordinarily depressing.