Something So Wrong: Hearing Comey

The morning after the drama of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, our local newspaper editorialized that the “key question” was whether anything the president said to him amounted to obstruction of justice. While most of the questions from Republican members of the committee seemed to focus on getting Comey to say that the president never ordered him to drop the Flynn investigation, the question of obstruction of justice is a distraction. Vladimir Vladimirovich must be chortling.

Republicans made much—as much as they could—of Comey’s report of the president’s words: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” The president, according the Comey’s notes, did not use the word “order,” and therefore the president’s defenders would have us concede there could be no obstruction of justice here.

But it is rather like a parent taking a child aside, looking him squarely in the eye and saying “I hope you will clean your room.” It would not take any higher powers of deduction than those naturally possessed by the average seven-year-old to know what the parent wanted—and expected—the child to do, or else. Nevertheless, the president’s attorney, Marc Kasowitz, insisted that the president “never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone.”

The line of questions doggedly pursued by the Intelligence Committee’s Republicans is all about demonstrating their loyalty to the president, and ultimately, it is about earning political power. Loyalty is the coin of the Trump realm, and those members of Congress who prove their loyalty believe that they will be rewarded by having influence with Trump.

Obstruction of justice, let’s assume, is an impeachable offense. Maybe what the president has done in his less-than-five-months in office is probable obstruction. A case can be made that Trump’s “hope” in the circumstance of a tête-à-tête in the Oval Office was a direct order. Still, the Republican House of Representatives, where Democrats are outnumbered 237 to 193, is not about to impeach Trump. A whole lot more hell would have to break loose before we get to that unlikely place.

For now, all the overwrought debate about obstruction of justice diverts our attention from what is really important. The most haunting moment in the Intelligence Committee’s examination of James Comey was Comey’s level-eyed testimony about Russia’s campaign of interference in the election process in the United States:

“There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever. The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. And it was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government. There is no fuzz on that.

“It is a high-confidence judgment of the entire intelligence community, and — and the members of this committee have — have seen the intelligence. It’s not a close call. That happened. That’s about as un-fake as you can possibly get, and is very, very serious, which is why it’s so refreshing to see a bipartisan focus on that, because this is about America, not about any particular party.”

The real key question is: what is the United States going to do about it? There is, so far, no leadership from the White House on this. There is no leadership from the Republican Party. There is no leadership from the Democratic Party. The public discussion should be about protecting the integrity of our elections—and not so much about obstruction of justice nor even about Trump campaign collusion with the Russians.

Comey testified that the president never asked him what the government should be doing to protect America against Russian interference in the election system. Trump believes that “the Russia thing” is “fake news.” By his own words, Trump fired Comey because of “the Russia thing.”

At least the Senate Intelligence Committee has taken on the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections as part of the committee’s mission. We can hope—in the strongest terms—that the committee will continue its investigation, wherever it might lead, but Congress needs to act and the president needs to care.

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