As all the world knows, last Thursday former FBI Director James Comey gave sworn testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Part of Comey’s testimony was an opening statement providing summaries of five exchanges he had had with President Trump between January and mid-April, which Comey conveyed in writing to the committee the day before the hearing, and which was therefore published online in advance. At the hearing itself Mr. Comey declined to read aloud the material he had already provided in writing, treating it as already part of the sworn record, and he proceeded to augment it with remarks that almost solely concerned, not Comey’s dismissal as FBI Director, but what President Trump said about the reasons for Comey’s dismissal in the days that followed it.
Now as Comey’s oral testimony unfolded it may have seemed that his request to forgo reading the narrative of his exchanges with the president did a favor for the committee by letting the members get promptly to their questions. In retrospect, however, I think that the committee chair did the American public a great disservice, and Mr. Comey a great favor, by not requesting that Comey read his narrative in full before the cameras. Senator Richard Burr’s (R., N.C.) deference was a favor to Comey because it allowed the brightest spotlight of the hearing to fall on Comey’s expression of indignation at being, as he put it, defamed by the president’s explanation for firing him, and on Comey’s assertion that the president’s statements about his dismissal were lies.
I cannot doubt that Comey realized, even if Senator Burr did not, that if Comey opened the hearing by spending perhaps up to thirty minutes reciting accounts of his exchanges with the president, the attention of all listeners legitimately would be absorbed by this narrative and the governmental issues it raised, and that any subsequent turn by Comey to his personal feelings of grievance and his allegations about the president’s personal character would seem like petty distractions from the matters of official business that the committee was convened to investigate. With Senator Burr’s compliance, Comey devised a way to avoid upstaging himself.
By skipping a reading of Comey’s narrative the committee also did a disservice to the public at large, since among the people who had already read Comey’s written text (certainly a minority) there were probably very few who gave it the careful attention to detail that it requires. In an oral recitation no words, phrases, sentences or paragraphs are omitted, and nothing is heard out of order. The world would have heard, from Mr. Comey’s own lips, his paraphrased affirmation, thrice-repeated, that President Trump was not under investigation. We would have heard with due emphasis both the phrases that Comey attributed to the president as verbatim quotations, which are actually very few and somewhat ambiguous, and the much more substantial amount of commentary in Comey’s own voice as narrator.
The narrator’s gap-filling would have enhanced our awareness that the highlighted exchanges were excerpted from longer conversations whose context, if provided, might well affect one’s understanding of the accuracy and significance of Comey’s interpretations, and even of his attributed quotations. In hearing an oral recitation of summaries we also would be more urgently aware that all of Comey’s testimony about his exchanges with the President represented notes that Comey has not yet made available either to the public or to the committee.
Above all, however, by leaving the narrative of his exchanges with the president out of the oral, televised testimony, Comey left in shadow the fact that the account he entered into sworn testimony differed substantially from the reports the public had been hearing for three weeks, originally published in the New York Times between May 11 and May 18 on the basis of anonymous sources.
I’m not surprised that Mr. Comey wanted to avoid reading his narrative aloud before the cameras because, for one thing, it would have compelled listeners to devote considerable attention to Mr. Comey’s role as a participant in his exchanges with the president. In the whole generation of his testimony, Comey’s objective in giving it was to focus attention upon presidential actions to which, it turns out, Comey himself was (by implication) a passive witness or victim.
Above all, however, by leaving the narrative of his exchanges with the president out of the oral, televised testimony, Comey left in shadow the fact that the account he entered into sworn testimony differed substantially from the reports the public had been hearing for three weeks, originally published in the New York Times between May 11 and May 18 on the basis of anonymous sources. Consequential decisions had been made, at least partly, in light of these reports—the most consequential being Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel. It was widely thought and said that the public was already in possession of some clear evidence that the president had attempted to obstruct the investigation into his own collusion with Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, and it was expected that Comey’s testimony on June 8 would provide more evidence.
What actually happened has not been fully registered in the media: while Comey’s testimony added a lot of new information about Mr. Comey’s exchanges with the president, it substantially reduced the evidence that President Trump did anything wrong―not legally, morally, ethically, or even socially. The oft-repeated evaluation of the President’s credibility in unequal competition with Comey’s has become, in great part, a red herring, because on June 8 the general gist and many details of the New York Times stories based on Comey’s memos were refuted by James Comey himself in his own written testimony. Much of what the public had been told, what the members of Congress had been told, what Rod Rosenstein had been told, was wrong. Jim Comey himself was saying so. Of course that would have been a lot easier to see if Comey had held our attention fixed on his sworn narrative by reading it aloud before the cameras.
What actually happened has not been fully registered in the media: while Comey’s testimony added a lot of new information about Mr. Comey’s exchanges with the president, it substantially reduced the evidence that President Trump did anything wrong―not legally, morally, ethically, or even socially.
Take the pre-June 8 public account of the “Flynn conversation.” The New York Times broke the story about this meeting on May 16, under a slightly different headline than the one now on its website, which is “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation.” (I do not know when the online version was revised.) Let’s step back to May 16 and begin reading the news as it broke:
President Trump asked the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, to shut down the federal investigation into Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo Mr. Comey wrote shortly after the meeting.
“I hope you can let this go,” the president told Mr. Comey, according to the memo.
The documentation of Mr. Trump’s request is the clearest evidence that the president has tried to directly influence the Justice Department and F.B.I. investigation into links between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia.
A little further down the article returns to the conversation and quotes the President.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Comey, according to the memo. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Mr. Trump told Mr. Comey that Mr. Flynn had done nothing wrong, according to the memo.
Mr. Comey did not say anything to Mr. Trump about curtailing the investigation, replying only: “I agree he is a good guy.”
Sounds familiar, I’m sure. Notice again that the Times article proclaims clear documentary evidence that the president tried to directly influence the investigation into links between Trump’s associates and Russia. It was May 17, the day after this article appeared, that Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein announced the appointment of Bob Mueller “to oversee the previously-confirmed FBI investigation of Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election and related matters.”
Now let’s turn to the written summary of the same conversation as Comey entered it into his sworn testimony on June 8. It covers a page and a half, is single spaced, and segmented into nine paragraphs. There are actually a number of interesting variances from the Times version, but for the sake of brevity I shall here note only the most consequential. I have put in bold type words that I think significant which do not appear in the Times version. In Comey Testimony Paragraph (3) we find:
The President began by saying Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians, but he had to let him go because he had misled the Vice President. He added that he had other concerns about Flynn, which he did not then specify.
After a narrated diversion Comey Testimony Paragraph (5) resumes narration of the conversation.
The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, “He is a good guy and has been through a lot.” He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President.
After narrating the conclusion of the conversation and Comey’s departure from the Oval Office, Comey Testimony Paragraph (7) narrates how the FBI director created a memo of the conversation.
I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December. I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign.
God I wish the world had heard Comey reading these words aloud before the committee and the cameras. According to the May 16 Times report about the alleged content of this memo, the memo provided documentary evidence that Trump sought to interfere in the broader Russian investigation. According to Comey’s testimony about the creation of exactly the same memo, the memo’s own author explicitly did not think that Trump was talking about the broader Russian investigation, and Comey’s summary of the rest of the conversation illustrates why this inference was certainly correct. Ergo, Comey’s June 8 testimony proved that the May Times report was egregiously misleading about the fundamental significance of Comey’s memo and the conversation it recorded.
This feature of Comey’s June 8 testimony is loaded with ironies, which might be appreciated with enjoyment were not the practical stakes for the country so serious. During his oral testimony Comey averred that many press stories about the Russia investigation were deeply erroneous, and he explained that the reason was that often those who leak don’t really know what’s going on, while those who do know don’t leak; yet even as he uttered these words Comey knew, and would shortly disclose to the world, that he himself was the source of the erroneous Times report of May 16.
According to Comey’s testimony about the creation of exactly the same memo, the memo’s own author explicitly did not think that Trump was talking about the broader Russian investigation, and Comey’s summary of the rest of the conversation illustrates why this inference was certainly correct. Ergo, Comey’s June 8 testimony proved that the May Times report was egregiously misleading about the fundamental significance of Comey’s memo and the conversation it recorded.
Who could possibly have known the contents of Comey’s memo better than Comey himself? Obviously Comey deliberately arranged to bait Michael Schmidt with a strategically incomplete version of his memo that would land a consequentially untruthful story on the Times front page. Mr. Schmidt should immediately contact Comey’s cutout Dan Richman and ask him exactly what Comey instructed him to tell the Times, and he should contact Comey as well to ask the same thing; and if Comey and Richman decline to respond, as I suspect their attorneys will advise them to do, the Times should at least pay the American public the courtesy of reporting their refusal in its pages.
Comey’s reason for planting a false story in the Times is not hard to see, for as Comey himself explained in his testimony, he leaked the details of the Flynn conversation for one specific purpose: to prompt the appointment of a special counsel. That’s a special counsel for the investigation of “Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.” As his June 8 testimony revealed, Comey didn’t actually have a story about that to plant, so he had to contrive the appearance of one by editing critical details out of a conversation about a different investigation, one that in his oral testimony Comey characterized as only tangentially related to the Russia investigation. (And one suspects that even this is an exaggeration―like Comey’s ominous but empty innuendo about Jeff Sessions).
Mr. Comey needs to be asked under oath how he can explain the disparity between the account of the Flynn meeting in his sworn testimony and the version he fed to the Times when he wanted to plant a story that would prompt the appointment of a special counsel. But there is another party to this tale whose testimony is needed even more, and that is Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein. Did he read the May 16 Times report on the Flynn discussion? Did it affect his decision to appoint a special counsel? And has his judgment about the need for a special counsel been affected by the last week’s revelation that Comey’s memo actually records a conversation in which the President was not talking about the broader Russian investigation, but just about an investigation in which one of the figures was Russian?