No secret tapes are needed to prove that President Trump never demanded a pledge of loyalty from James Comey at their January 27 dinner. All the evidence is there in Comey’s own testimony.
National Review essayist David French recently stated what many journalists and other Americans believe when he wrote, “There now exists sworn testimony that Trump asked Comey for personal loyalty….” French was discussing President Trump’s supposed exposure to charges of obstruction of justice. But French is mistaken: sworn testimony to this effect does not exist, because Comey’s June 8 testimony concerning his January 27 dinner with the president nowhere reports, whether through quotation, paraphrase, or even implication, that “Trump asked Comey for personal loyalty.” This serious and widespread misconception must be cleared up.
What may be called the Loyalty Dinner burst into view on May 11 on the New York Times front page, under the dramatic headline, “In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty. Comey Demurred.” I shall refer to this as version one of the “Loyalty Dinner.” Comey on June 8 submitted a written account of the Loyalty Dinner as part of his sworn testimony before the Senate intelligence committee. Version two differs from version one in many details, one of which I have just mentioned. But version one etched such a powerful impression on the minds of pundits and politicians that even intelligent observers have, in effect, interpolated its fundamental claims into version two, where they are actually absent. The two versions of the Loyalty Dinner need to be compared, with careful attention paid to what version two omits as well as to important details it includes that were not made public before June 8.
Since the Times report ascribes version one to two sources and mentions no disagreement about the details, it appears that the Comey associates who spoke to Times reporter Michael Schmidt preserved pretty accurately a single version they both heard from Comey. Comey, therefore, was the source of both versions and was responsible for their differences. The differences between Comey’s versions one and two may be grouped into two categories:
1.0 The topics discussed in the two versions do not completely overlap. One minor topic briefly paraphrased in version one does not appear at all in version two, while two topics paraphrased at length in version two do not appear at all in version one. A topic whose occurrence in the conversation Comey concealed from the public until June 8 is the critically important “Steele dossier.”
2.0 In some passages where the same topics are narrated, the two versions display variations that affect meaning.
2.1 Both versions have two passages in which the president mentions “loyalty,” but they are quite different.
In version one, the first “loyalty” passage represents the president in paraphrase directing a query to Comey about whether the FBI director would pledge loyalty to him, and it represents Comey in paraphrase declining to pledge. The second passage represents the president in paraphrase saying that he needed Comey’s loyalty, and represents Comey in paraphrase declining to pledge loyalty but offering to give the president “honesty” (this word is quoted). The narration then represents Trump in paraphrase asking whether Comey will give his “honest loyalty” (also in direct quotation).
Version two likewise has two passages in which the president mentions “loyalty.” In version two, all of the reported speech mentioning “loyalty” is represented as a verbatim quotation of the president’s words. These quotations, however, do not include anything that represents the president either making a request, seeking information, or referring to a pledge.
2.2 Both versions narrate a passage where Comey discusses political reliability as well as another where the president says something about loyalty, and in both versions the two passages proceed continuously in sequence. In version one, however, the sequence is Trump/loyalty—Comey/reliability, while in version two the order is reversed, which changes the context of both speeches respectively in the two versions. In version two, where the loyalty topic comes second, Trump’s quoted statement is followed by a lengthy period of silence between the interlocutors. This passage of silence is absent from version one, where Comey’s speech responds to the president’s.
2.3 Both versions also include a paraphrased passage where Comey offers advice about the benefit of an independent FBI. Version one paraphrases Comey explaining that an independent FBI best serves the country, while version two paraphrases Comey explaining that an independent FBI best serves Mr. Trump’s interests as president.
How could one eyewitness participant in the Loyalty Dinner— who would shortly afterward make a written memorandum of his recollection—subsequently produce two such different versions of the same dinner? It’s a legitimate question. But the case is even stranger, for in Comey’s sworn testimony of the Loyalty Dinner he states, after narrating the highlights of the dinner from the beginning through his departure, that he is adding, as an apparent afterthought, an episode of the dinner not mentioned in the preceding chronological narrative. This means that Comey’s testimony in effect provides instructions for reconstructing a third version of the Loyalty Dinner which, if Comey’s testimony may be accepted as truthful, is a more accurate account of the actual conversation than either of the other two versions. The omitted episode is the discussion of the “Steele dossier,” and in Part III of this analysis I shall reconstruct the Loyalty Dinner with the Steele dossier passage restored to the sequence. But first it is necessary to compare the two versions already available.
The Loyalty Dinner, Version One
Let’s return to May 11 and revisit the Loyalty Dinner bombshell as it burst into public view on the front page of the New York Times. Bold type highlights words deserving special attention.
As they ate, the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and the crowd sizes at Mr. Trump’s rallies. The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him.
Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, Mr. Comey has recounted to others, he told Mr. Trump that he would always be honest with him, but that he was not “reliable” in the conventional political sense.
After a paragraph explaining that the White House disputes this account, the article resumes the narrative.
By Mr. Comey’s account, his answer to Mr. Trump’s initial question apparently did not satisfy the president, the associates said. Later in the dinner, Mr. Trump again said to Mr. Comey that he needed his loyalty.
Mr. Comey again replied that he would give him “honesty” and did not pledge his loyalty, according to the account of the conversation.
But Mr. Trump pressed him on whether it would be “honest loyalty.”
“You will have that,” Mr. Comey told his associates he responded.
Throughout his career, Mr. Trump has made loyalty from the people who work for him a key priority, often discharging employees he considers insufficiently reliable.
After several paragraphs of background, the article returns to the narrative for one more detail
During the meal, according to the account of the two associates, Mr. Comey tried to explain to Mr. Trump how he saw his role as F.B.I. director. Mr. Comey told Mr. Trump that the country would be best served by an independent F.B.I. and Justice Department.
So: Trump allegedly demands “loyalty,” Comey responds by refusing to be politically “reliable,” and he instructs the president that Comey’s vision of his role as FBI director is to do what is best for the country, in implicit contrast to what the president has requested.
Comey’s refusal of reliability in the “conventional political sense” presumes that Trump’s (ascribed) expectation of a loyalty pledge was tantamount to a demand for reliability in supporting Trump’s political agenda. In concluding the main part of the narrative the Times reiterates more explicitly the identification of loyalty and reliability that version one of the Loyalty Dinner implies (see above sentence beginning “Throughout his career”). The article then returns to narrative a final time to emphasize Comey’s instruction to the president about what is best for the country. In demanding Comey’s loyalty, therefore, the president was demanding the right to use the FBI for his own political purposes, rather than for the good of the country as Comey would prefer.
Comey’s refusal of reliability in the “conventional political sense” presumes that Trump’s (ascribed) expectation of a loyalty pledge was tantamount to a demand for reliability in supporting Trump’s political agenda.
When the Times story appeared, the White House and the president disputed the accuracy of the whole account; but in doing so they also acknowledged that loyalty might be important to the president, only not in the sense the Times article implied. The same Times article (possibly updated for the on-line publication) quotes White House Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders as follows: “[The president] would never even suggest the expectation of personal loyalty, only loyalty to our country and its great people.” A good many of those holding unfavorable views of Trump were unconvinced (to put it mildly) that the former reality TV star had any such idealistic thoughts about loyalty. Nevertheless, Sanders is right on one general point: there are more meanings of loyalty than the corrupt one ascribed to the president in the version Comey related to his friends. In fact, in version two Comey himself admits as much, although without reconsidering his assumption that on Donald Trump’s lips the word “loyalty” can only mean corruption.
The Loyalty Dinner, Version Two
Of version two’s 10 paragraphs, the first two narrate how the January 27 dinner came about, with much dramatic narration leading to the circumstance, unforeseen and surprising to narrator Comey, that he and the president are to dine alone together in the White House Green Room. The narrative of the conversation begins in the next paragraph with the president initiating discussion by introducing the topic of whether Comey wanted to stay on as FBI director, and offering Comey his sympathetic understanding if Comey wanted to leave the job. In the same paragraph Comey also recounts his subjective impression that the president’s choice of topic was “strange,” and in the next Comey recounts another subjective impression, partly based on “the one-on-one setting,” that “the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.”
In his June 8 testimony before Congress, Comey elaborated that he thought the president expected to get something from him in exchange for leaving him in his position. Note, however, that Comey has so far attributed nothing to the president that would indicate a request, even by implication, or that the president was considering dismissing Comey from his position as FBI director. In fact the president’s reference to Comey’s job assumes that Trump would like confirmation of Comey’s independent decision whether to continue serving.
Narrator Comey adds that the thought of the patronage relationship “concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.”
According to Comey, these were the FBI director’s thoughts as he replied to the president (paragraph five) that he intended to complete his 10-year term. Comey goes on
And then, because the set-up made me uneasy, I added that I was not “reliable” in the way politicians use that word, but he could always count on me to tell him the truth. I added that I was not on anybody’s side politically and could not be counted on in the traditional political sense, a stance I said was in his best interest as the president.
The reader should note that the whole subject of political reliability is here raised by Comey, not in response to any statement about loyalty attributed to the president as in version one, but explicitly because of Comey’s own speculation about the president’s reason for inviting him to the private dinner. Comey’s term “reliable” therefore cannot be Comey’s explication of what Trump means by “loyalty” (when that moment arrives), because Trump hasn’t mentioned loyalty yet.
Comey puts the word “reliable” in quotation marks to designate it as a word used by other people, “politicians” presumably like the president, whose lingo Comey fancies he is speaking while handling the tainted word with only his fingertips. Comey is patronizing the president, or in his own mind perhaps counter-patronizing him.
Finally, notice that while in version one Comey advises the president to allow Comey to do what is best for the country, in version two he advises the president to allow him to do what is best for Donald Trump as president. From the perspective that Comey offers the president, partisan reliability and non-partisan independence are both ways for an FBI director to serve a person in the office of president, but Comey, as the man more experienced in the ways of Washington, is trying to convince the newcomer that he knows a way that is better for Trump as president than the partisan reliability he fears Trump, like a conventional politician, must be seeking. Comey is attempting to gain Trump’s compliance by presenting himself as an advisor whose own best interest as FBI director is seamlessly compatible with Trump’s best interest as the president, which the advisor wishes to serve. This is the voice of a personal loyalist, and it may fairly be said that the matter of personal loyalty to the president first enters the Loyalty Dinner here, where Comey introduces it.
But Comey’s whole discourse about what is best for Donald Trump as president, his refusal of political reliability, his assurance of truthfulness and non-partisanship, is all premature, since the president hasn’t asked Comey for anything; he hasn’t mentioned politics; he hasn’t mentioned reliability; and he hasn’t mentioned his personal interest as president. The last of these topics is the only one that the president ever so much as touches upon at any point in the conversation (once, perhaps, when discussing the Steele dossier, where his private interest as an individual is uniquely implicated). The whole issue of Trump’s encroachment upon Comey’s independence is an obsession in Comey’s head that he has projected onto the president. To judge only from Comey’s own testimony of the conversation, this projection is largely if not entirely Comey’s error.
Next: The Loyalty Dinner, Part II: “I need loyalty.”