If in the Oval Office President Trump was looking for some of the “honesty” Jim Comey promised him, he sure didn’t get it.
(Read Part I here.)
In former FBI director James Comey’s written testimony recounting his private Oval Office discussion with the president about erstwhile National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, we find a surprising confession of doubt:
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 could be wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn’s departure and the controversy around his account of his phone calls.
It is odd to find Comey admitting he “could be wrong” about the focus of the president’s “request,” since in Comey’s paraphrases of Trump’s statements the topic is perfectly clear: “Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians, but . . . he had misled the Vice President . . . . Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President.” Comey couldn’t be wrong in supposing that the president’s “request” had to do with Flynn’s leaked conversation with Kislyak.
On the other hand, Comey never admits to wondering whether he could be wrong in supposing that the president’s remarks about Flynn conveyed a request, although the verbal evidence, and all the background circumstances, indicate plainly that they didn’t. This looks like a misdirection. Prompted perhaps by something about uncertainty he imprudently recorded in his notes, in his testimony Comey deflects attention away from the actual source of doubt toward an implausible substitute.
Shadow of a Doubt
In the first place, at their previous meeting on January 27 Trump (as paraphrased by Comey) actually told Comey that he was considering giving him an order, and Comey had no difficulty realizing that this was not a thinly-veiled request but an invitation for feedback (as I have pointed out in Part I). Now in the meeting of February 14, Trump’s words (as quoted by Comey) never mention an order or request, while instead they positively acknowledge that the matter is in Comey’s own hands: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this guy go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” (Emphasis added.)
To regard these words as a preemptive request or directive, as Comey claims he did, is simply to ignore their plain meaning, without any reason to do so. In his oral testimony, Comey admitted to Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) that the words he ascribed to Trump did not in themselves constitute a direction, although he stood by his inference that the president meant to convey one.
Moreover, if Comey really thought—as he told Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.)—that he was going to hear “something big” from the president’s lips, the president kept him in suspense for a good long time, because the significant words come near the end of a fairly long discussion that for almost all its duration is not about the FBI investigation of Flynn. The only words that Comey quotes from the earlier part are “I want to talk about Mike Flynn,” which do not make reference to an FBI investigation or make a request of any sort. Comey’s narrative continues:
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.
Nothing so far about an FBI investigation, and nothing big.
Comey then adds that Trump switched to another topic: “The president then made a long series of comments about the problem with leaks of classified information.” Since Flynn’s conversation with Russian Ambassador Kislyak and its content became publicly known through an unauthorized leak, at this point it would appear that Trump is concerned about Flynn partly, if not primarily, as the victim of an intelligence leak, one that the president could well have suspected came from Comey’s bureau.
The president’s disquisition about leaks goes on long enough that Chief of Staff Reince Priebus opens the door to interrupt, and Trump tells him he would be done shortly. This is important, because the digression into leaks—if a digression is really what it is—suggests that conveying a particular request to Comey could hardly have been an urgent piece of business for the president, if he was thinking of it at all.
With the conversation approaching a rushed conclusion, Trump again turns to the topic of Flynn, still without specific reference to an FBI investigation, and still without anything “big.” (Out of curiosity, what was Comey thinking about the outlook for “something big” when the actual conversation had gone on so inconsequentially for so long?) Comey attributes several more statements about Flynn to Trump, but these simply reiterate what Trump had said about Flynn earlier, without reference to an FBI investigation.
Only now does the narration come to the sentences that Comey presents as critical: “I hope you can see your way clear . . . . I hope you can let this go.” These words are awfully qualified and cautious to satisfy Comey’s expectation of “something big.” But he makes them as big as he can, quoting them verbatim, adding emphasis by quoting his own reply—the only time in the February 14 narrative that narrator Comey includes participant Comey as a contributor to the discussion—and finally by presenting Comey’s own unexpressed thought:
I replied only that “he is a good guy.” …I did not say I would “let this go.”
But the conversation does not end there. Instead the president “returned briefly to the problem of leaks” one more time before concluding the discussion.
Trump’s gestures toward an FBI investigation of Flynn were therefore a very small and apparently unemphasized part of a much longer discussion in which the issue of leaks, and perhaps of Flynn’s victimization by a leaker, seem to have occupied the major part of the president’s attention.
In this regard it is worth taking a closer look at how the conversation ended. Comey would have us believe that when Trump said “I hope you can see your way clear….I hope you can let this go” he was directing Comey to drop an FBI investigation into Flynn. Comey thinks that an appropriate response, from Trump’s point of view, would have been “I’ll let this go,” but he withholds this and instead says “[Flynn] is a good guy.” This is not an answer to the request Trump was supposedly making, it is a contribution to a discussion about the kind of guy Flynn is. So what does the president do when his putative request elicits no reply? He drops the subject of Flynn and resumes talking about leaks, before allowing the meeting finally to break up.
Nobody who was actually making a request would do it this way. The fact that Trump accepts Comey’s remark as a conclusion to the discussion of Flynn suggests that he thinks Comey has heard his point, which would have been a point about Flynn, not about an FBI investigation. Trump has given Comey input, but he leaves it up to Comey to decide what to make of it. There is no request. (And by the way, this was subsequently confirmed by Trump’s failure to ever raise the subject of Flynn again in the three more months that passed before he dismissed Comey as FBI director.)
“Something Big”: Comey’s Missing Input
Apparently nothing big happened in the February 14 meeting after all. But why then would the president have ostentatiously cleared the room to speak to Comey privately? In this mystery there is a dog that didn’t bark: James Comey.
In his account, Comey never contributes anything to the discussion. Now if we look at the January 6 and January 27 discussions and ask whether anything “big” happened in them from the president’s point of view, it would be in the unexpected information and advice he received from Comey. Ergo, the president may have wanted to see Comey alone to give the FBI director an opportunity to offer him some honest counsel about any aspect of the Mike Flynn matter that the president should have been concerned about.
According to Comey’s testimony, the president’s affirmation of Flynn’s innocence is narrowly framed to encompass just one topic. This could well have been a way for the president to invite the FBI director to broaden his perspective. In fact, there is a point early in the discussion when the president refers to “other concerns about Flynn,” and this sounds like an opportunity for the FBI director to jump in.
But Comey apparently told the president nothing throughout the whole discussion. In that case, when the president had said his say about Flynn and heard nothing back, his cautiously worded “hope” that the FBI might have no further interest in Flynn would have seemed implicitly justified, if not otiose. It could even have been a meaningless rhetorical expedient for the president to drop the unproductively stalled topic back in Comey’s lap and move on, just as Comey’s “he is a good guy” dropped it back in Trump’s.
There’s one thing we know for sure about James Comey: when he told the president “you will always get honesty from me,” he wasn’t being honest.