To grasp the distortion James Comey makes of his February 14 meeting with President Trump, first review the meeting of January 27.
In a previous article, I showed how the version of the February 14 Flynn conversation leaked to the New York Times in May was tailored by James Comey to create the misleading impression that President Trump asked Comey to shut down part of the FBI investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Comey knew this was false at the time. In his sworn testimony, he indicated Trump’s comments about Flynn were much more narrowly focused. But since Comey’s purpose was to prompt the appointment of a special counsel, the former FBI director needed to suggest that the president had sought to impede the broader Russian investigation, and he did so by leaking truncated quotations that omitted qualifications the president had actually uttered.
Comey also knew—or at least had compelling reason to know—that Trump’s comments about Flynn were not a request or direction of any sort. Here is how we can tell.
Before February 14
According to Comey’s written testimony, he and Trump had met for discussion on two occasions prior to their February 14 meeting.
The first time was on January 6 at Trump Tower. After leaders of the Intelligence Community briefed the president-elect and his security team on their assessment of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Comey and Trump met alone for a special briefing on the “Steele dossier” and what the incoming president should do in case an effort was made to compromise him. From Comey’s description of the meeting, the FBI director came with much information and expertise to convey, while Trump knew little. Comey did most of the talking while the president-elect listened to his information and advice.
The second meeting took place on January 27 at a dinner the recently inaugurated president and Comey shared together at the White House. Once again, the Steele dossier was a topic of discussion (probably the main topic, as I have explained here). In Comey’s June 8 written testimony he paraphrased that discussion as follows (emphasis added):
During the dinner, the President returned to the salacious material I had briefed him about on January 6….He said he was considering ordering me to investigate the alleged incident to prove it didn’t happen. I replied that he should give that careful thought because it might create a narrative that we were investigating him personally, which we weren’t, and because it was very difficult to prove a negative. He said he would think about it and asked me to think about it.
Here we see President Trump actually mentioning giving an order to the FBI director, with the qualification “considering.” As Comey realized, this is not an implied order, but rather an invitation for Comey to advise the president about his tentatively proposed plan. Not only does Comey give the president advice, he advises him to shelve his proposal, and the president agrees. Moreover the president indicates that he expects to exchange views with Comey again, and instructs the FBI director to prepare independent thoughts for sharing with him.
Thus, in both of Comey’s prior meetings with Trump, Comey used his expertise as FBI director to give him counsel. Trump apparently welcomed Comey’s knowledgeable input, since in the second meeting he elicited it, followed it, encouraged more of it, and also indicated that Comey should expect a further consultation.
February 14: Alone at Last
On February 14, Comey and five other officials with intelligence responsibilities presented the president and some other members of his administration with a scheduled counterintelligence briefing in the Oval Office. When the briefing concluded the president told those present that he wanted to speak with Comey alone. Comey’s testimony suggests that a meeting between only the president and the FBI director was something that he and possibly others considered odd and inappropriate. During his oral testimony, in response to a question from Sen. Mark Warner (D–Va.), Comey elaborated, explaining that when he was alone with the president, he thought, “Something big is about to happen. I need to remember every single word that is spoken.” This observation seems intended to spread an aura of abnormality and impropriety around whatever the president said.
Nevertheless after reviewing Comey’s testimony about his prior discussions with Trump, one wonders why Comey wouldn’t have been expecting the president to seek an opportunity to confer with him alone, since 18 days earlier the president had told him to think about his proposal to investigate the Steele dossier. Both of Comey’s discussions with Trump had concerned the Steele dossier, and both discussions had occurred without others present. When the president asked the gathering to leave him alone with Comey, the FBI director had good reason to expect the president to seek his input about the Steele dossier. Did Comey forget what the president told him? Someone should ask him.
FBI Director “Stunned”
Although at both of their previous meetings Comey had given Trump expert advice as FBI director, which Trump had welcomed and encouraged, at the meeting of February 14 his role and the president’s were almost entirely reversed. The president does almost all the talking, while Comey’s only contribution is a single deliberately meaningless remark near the end. Far from seeking Comey’s advice, the president makes a preemptive “request” about an investigation, with scarcely even a nod to the FBI director’s independent judgment.
Comey says he considered the president’s request “very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.” Why then did he not share his concern with the president then and there? Comey was asked that very question by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Comey replied that he just hadn’t thought of it, because he was so “stunned” by what the president said. His explanation is hardly plausible. According to Comey’s own account of the January 27 meeting, he was continually expecting Trump to try to infringe upon the FBI’s independence. At that meeting Comey had expressed his opposing views right up front to Trump, and the president didn’t give him any pushback about them. So if 18 days later Comey thought the president was making a request that infringed upon the FBI’s independence, he had a response all ready and rehearsed, and he even had good reason to think the president was prepared to give him a sympathetic hearing.
The reason Comey did not explain the president’s impropriety to him on February 14 cannot have been the psychological one he provided to the Senate intelligence committee. The true reason must be one that Comey wants to avoid giving: that at the time of the conversation Comey did not think the president’s remarks were a direction to drop an FBI investigation. After all, why should he have thought they were?