The reporting coming out of The New York Times and CNN is explosive: Deposed FBI Director James Comey wrote a memo following a February 14 meeting with Donald Trump in which he says the President told him “I hope you can let this go” in regard to fired aide Michael Flynn’s role in the ongoing investigation into Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 campaign.
If true, that is almost the textbook definition of obstruction of justice, a charge that could well lead to impeachment proceedings.
“Reluctantly I have to say yes,” independent Maine Sen. Angus King told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Tuesday night about the prospect of impeachment if the claims in the Comey memo are true.
Interactive: The many paths from Trump to Russia
Given those incredibly high stakes, the White House has come out forcefully – insisting that Comey’s memo as reported misrepresents the tenor of the conversation on that February day.
“While the President has repeatedly expressed his view that General (Michael) Flynn is a decent man who served and protected our country, the President has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn,” a White House official told CNN in a statement. “The President has the utmost respect for our law enforcement agencies, and all investigations. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the President and Mr. Comey.”
Here’s the problem with that statement – and the broader pushback against the story, which was first reported by the Times’ Michael Schmidt: To believe it, you have to make all sorts of assumptions that seem very unlikely to be true.
The first and most important is that Comey is either lying or badly misunderstood a one-on-one conversation – more on that in a minute – between himself and the President of the United States.
If Comey is lying, ask yourself why. Why would the then-FBI director lie – in real time – about a meeting he had with the President of the United States? What purpose would that possibly serve?
If you think Comey just misinterpreted the meeting, his history on this stuff would suggest that’s wrong. His detailed memory of an attempt by then-White House chief of staff Andy Card and then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to convince then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, sick in the hospital, to reauthorize the domestic spying program in 2004, wound up being validated.
White House's evolving saga
The second big issue with the White House story is, why would Trump ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Vice President Mike Pence to leave the room before making the request of Comey unless Trump knew that what he was doing was extremely iffy – and wanted to avoid witnesses? Or perhaps he knew that Sessions or Pence might stop him before he even made the ask and he didn’t want that problem?
The only possible explanation I could come up with is that Trump, always a believer in his powers of persuasion, thought he might be able to convince Comey more easily in a one-on-one setting than with Pence and Sessions around. But that seems far less likely, knowing Trump, than the other two alternatives for asking the room be cleared.
And then, finally, is the context into which this latest bombshell lands. Trump’s entire presidency – and his entire transition to the presidency – has been dogged by questions about his campaign’s ties to Russia. From Flynn, who was forced to resign as national security adviser after he repeatedly misled Pence and others about his interactions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, to Carter Page, a one-time Trump foreign policy adviser, to Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, to political gadfly – and sometimes Trump adviser – Roger Stone, there have been a slew of reports that raise questions about the appropriateness of the interactions between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
While Trump has repeatedly dismissed the Russia story as “fake news,” he acknowledged in an interview last week with NBC’s Lester Holt that Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation played a role in his decision to fire the FBI director. “And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won,’” Trump told Holt.
Trump has also acknowledged that he directly asked Comey whether he was under investigation and insisted that, on three separate occasions, Comey said he was not. But Comey allies have disputed the idea that the FBI director would have done so.
Spiraling out of control
The problem for Trump now is that the story is spiraling totally out of control. Given all that we now know about Trump, Comey and the FBI’s Russia investigation, it is going to be damn near impossible for Republican congressional leaders to avoid actively seeking out the Comey memo as well as any taped conversations between Trump and Comey. (Trump seemed to float the idea late last week that he may have a secret taping system, but the White House has refused to comment on it since that Friday tweet.)
Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, in a tweet Tuesday, summed up lawmakers’ appetite to read the memo: “@GOPoversight is going to get the Comey memo, if it exists. I need to see it sooner rather than later. I have my subpoena pen ready.”
If Comey’s memo – when Congress gets its hands on it – says what the Times’ and CNN’s reporting says it does (and I am betting it will) then Trump’s presidency becomes in serious and immediate peril.
The burden of proof shifts to Trump and the White House to show that what Comey wrote in the memo was simply incorrect. And, barring a recording of the conversation that proves Trump right and Comey wrong, that is going to be very hard to do.
Everything in Trump’s first 116 days in office – and there’s been a lot of it – was survivable in a political sense. If the Comey memo winds up being accurate, this one might not be.