During the Watergate hearings, Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee asked, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” At the outset of Senate hearings and an investigation by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III into the Trump campaign’s connection to Russian operatives and Russian interference in the 2016 president campaign, the question is: “What did the president mean when he said what he said to FBI Director James Comey?”
That question was not conclusively answered by Comey in his testimony Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. But Comey said a lot. Quite a lot.
For starters, he rebutted President Donald Trump’s claim that he was fired because he had lost support of FBI agents and that the FBI was in turmoil.
Comey said, “The administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led. Those were lies, plain and simple.”
The Senate committee tried to get at what was actually said between Trump and Comey in highly unusual private conversations. Comey said he believed the president directed him to drop the FBI investigation of former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn.
According to Comey, Trump said in a private Oval Office conversation, “He (Flynn) is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Comey said he took that as directive to drop the investigation. That would be obstruction of justice. But not all senators agreed. There will be much debate over what “hope” meant in that context.
What will be more fodder for the president’s supporters is Comey’s admission that he leaked contents of memos of his private meetings with Trump to the press through an intermediary after being fired from the FBI. Comey said he doubted the Justice Department would be able to conduct a thorough investigation and wanted a special counsel to assume that role.
We don’t dismiss leaking documents, but Comey is not a partisan operative. He is not a lifelong Democrat with an ax to grind. He is a highly respected public servant, and it was his testimony to Congress in the waning days of the 2016 presidential campaign that added new doubts to Hillary Clinton’s truthfulness about her private email server and correspondence on it.
So it is important to put partisanship aside, as difficult as that may be. Comey raises a legitimate point when he asks: Why did the president have everyone leave the Oval Office before he brought up the Flynn investigation and said he hoped Comey could let it go?
The president does himself no favors by refusing to stop tweeting and speaking off the cuff. Trump has intimated there might be tapes of his meetings with Comey.
On Thursday, Comey said, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” Those are not the words of man with something to hide. The truth here is we have yet to learn the truth. Mueller will have wide latitude to go where the facts lead. And while he will be the person to determine whether the president indeed tried to obstruct justice, it will fall on Congress to take action if he does.
What did the president mean when he said what he said? We do not know. But we know Comey was deeply concerned about the meetings and the possibility that the president might lie about them. He said in his written testimony that the president, in a private White House dinner said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
The American people need answers, they expect answers.
Thursday was just the beginning of the process.