Former FBI director James Comey demonstrated once again on Thursday that he is a master of congressional testimony. While avoiding making any accusations or legal judgments, he offered up a trail of information that likely puts President Donald Trump into a legal corner.
Beyond well-known basic facts—yes, the Russians did hack the election and the Democratic National Committee—the hearing revolved around the behavior of the two central players in this saga: Comey and the president. Of course, Comey is a private citizen not under investigation, and Trump is a sitting president whose close associates (at least) are under investigation for potentially helping a foreign government undermine a U.S. election. Nonetheless, Comey’s handling of his interactions with Trump helps the American public evaluate his motives and his credibility.
Comey’s written testimony starts by noting that during his eight years as FBI director under President Obama, he had just two one-on-one conversations with the president, but had racked up nine within four months of service under Trump. He expressed his discomfort with the tenor of these interactions, which led him to keep detailed notes documenting what was said. And during the three exchanges that he highlighted, Comey felt that Trump was impugning the FBI’s independence by essentially asking him to drop its investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn and to swear loyalty.
Why, senators asked, didn’t Comey confront Trump and tell him that he was compromising the FBI’s integrity with his requests? Comey said he doesn’t really know, but thinks it may have been because he was stunned by Trump’s behavior, and even conceded that his response was less than courageous. Comey’s reaction seems like a natural human response: avoiding confrontation with his ultimate boss. Those who recall Comey’s storied willingness to stand up to President Bush over a spying program might find this a bit hard to swallow, but it likely played well to a broader audience.
In the same vein, Comey was asked several times about what he reported up the Justice Department chain of command and what he kept to himself. Senior FBI officials were told about the Trump meetings, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions wasn’t given the details. Comey claims to have reported to his boss the president’s request that the FBI do something to “remove the cloud” of the Russia investigation, but does not seem to have pursued the matter. It’s clear that Comey felt he could handle Trump and preserve the integrity of the investigation; the memos were his insurance policy in case he had miscalculated.
Much of what Comey had to say about Trump’s behavior—such as the Oval Office meeting where the president asked him to ease up on Flynn and the demand for loyalty—had already been previewed in the press. But Comey’s testimony went further, showing that Trump was expecting a quid pro quo: He had allowed Comey to stay on in his job, and in return, expected the director to fix some things for him.
And although Comey carefully avoided saying that the president’s actions amounted to obstruction of justice, he laid the predicate for that. He repeatedly emphasized that before the conversation about Flynn, Trump asked everyone to leave the room, including Sessions. The implication is that Trump wouldn’t have done that unless he intended to discuss something that was not above board. Similarly, Comey didn’t take a position on whether he was fired to stop the FBI’s Russia investigation, but laid down a trail leading there. He claimed to be puzzled by the administration, saying that he was fired because he wasn’t doing a good job, but that Trump had told him the opposite many times. He believes Trump’s explanation that he was fired due to the Russia investigation, but wouldn’t say what exactly about the Russia investigation Trump didn’t like. But in the context of Trump’s vehement criticism of the probe as a witchhunt, it’s hard to read Comey’s dismissal as anything other than an attempt to shut down the investigation.
Unsurprisingly, Comey didn’t reveal any details about ongoing investigations in a public setting, but he did provide an important clue about the strength of the Trump-Russia allegations. Comey released the notes of his interactions with the president to the press because he hoped it would trigger the appointment of a special prosecutor. In contrast, he didn’t push for a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s e-mail server because there was “no case” there. Put those together, and it’s pretty clear that Comey thinks there is a case against at least some people close to Trump—if not the president himself.
Comey had a story to tell and he told it well. The White House may focus solely on the fact that he confirmed that Trump himself was not under investigation, but Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the congressional committees that are obligated to get to the truth of this tangled web will have to follow where Comey’s trail leads them.
Faiza Patel is co-director of the Liberty & National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.