So does the gun actually smoke?
As the smoke, so to speak, begins to clear after Comey's first day of testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday, the narrative that's beginning to arise on the Right is that while President Trump's attempt to influence then-Director Comey to drop not only his investigation of Michael Flynn but implicitly the entire Russiagate probe was highly improper, unethical, and unprecedented, it doesn't rise to the level of obstruction of justice. Predictably in the Age of Trump, there are even some who actually justify the President's behavior; there seems to be little, if anything, that this president could do that at least many of his defenders would not seek to justify!
Let me say that if this comes down to Comey's word versus that of the president, I will have no hesitation in believing Comey. Despite the animus people on the Right bear him for not proceeding with the prosecution of Hillary Clinton, despite the animus people on the Left bear him for explaining his reasons at an inconvenient moment for the former Secretary of State, and despite the current urge on the part of the president and his defenders to discredit him for tactical reasons, James Comey is a public servant about whose personal integrity hitherto has not been, to my knowledge, ever before been questioned. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, boasted in The Art of the Deal of his skill at the telling of falsehoods and the manipulation of the others and has proven ever since his declaration of candidacy to be a habitual and apparently remorseless liar; one study during the primary campaign concluded that he told, on average, one lie every five minutes! A man who insisted long after whatever small doubt that President Obama was born in Hawaii was laid to rest that he was born in Kenya and that Ted Cruz's father might have conspired with Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate President Kennedy, has a credibility problem on general principles. Mr. Comey, it seems to me, was right in preparing memoranda after his meetings in precisely the expectation that the president might lie about them.
I'm not a lawyer, but from reading what those who are have written Mr. Trump's intent seems to be the key issue in determining the criminality of his behavior in his conversations with Director Comey. Comey interpreted the president's request that he drop the Flynn investigation an order, which he subsequently chose to disobey. If that was Mr. Trump's intent, or even if Mr. Trump knew that his words would be so interpreted, it's kind of hard not to see it as amounting to culpable and probably illegal interference with an ongoing FBI investigation of a former and potentially of current members of the President's own administration. If, on the other hand, having previously attempted to improperly elicit a pledge of personal loyalty from a Director who owed his primary loyalty to the law and was sworn to support and defend the Constitution rather than the president, Mr. Trump merely was trying to persuade Director Comey to do so of his own volition, it was merely really, really dumb and indicative of a shocking lack of awareness of the protocols and proprieties of the relationship between occupants of the offices the two men held.
It's hard to imagine, especially given his apparent caution in phrasing his requests as requests, that Mr. Trump didn't realize that to directly order Comey to drop the investigations might cross a legal line. But that something is hard to imagine doesn't necessarily mean that it's impossible. Can a person obstruct justice without realizing that he's doing so and that it's against the law? I don't know. I'm not a lawyer. Perhaps a lack of criminal intent might be a valid defense even if what the President said was intended as a tactfully-phrased order.
But you know, I'm inclined to give the president the benefit of the doubt on this one. As regular readers of this blog know, I hold neither Mr. Trump's personal truthfulness nor his ethics nor his respect for the law in high regard; I don't see how anyone familiar with the record can. Whether anything comes of Director Comey's testimony or not, I have said all along that given the President's long-standing habit of playing fast and loose with the law I would be very surprised if he finishes out his term; the habits of a lifetime are not easy to break. But Occam's Razor seems to apply here: the preferable explanation is the simplest one that fits all the known facts.
And the simplest explanation of Mr. Trump's behavior- and one consistent with what we know of him- that he simply didn't realize that there was anything wrong with his requests of Director Comey. The president's ethical patterns have never been my main worry where he was concerned. What worries me is how far he is in over his head. Despite his boasting about his supposedly high IQ, Mr. Trump has never impressed me as an intelligent man. He made his money in real estate speculation, often of an ethically questionable nature; he has literally never run a successful company. He certainly came to office shockingly ignorant of the Constitution, the world situation, and just about everything else relating to his new job. I would be very surprised if he realized the line he was crossing when he tried to pressure Director Comey to curtail the FBI's ongoing investigations of members of his administration.
Parenthetically, and despite the President's repeated statements that Comey had assured him that he was not personally under investigation and any mischaracterization of Comey's testimony, all the former director told the Senate Intelligence Committee was that the FBI was not investigating the allegations regarding the president and Russian prostitutes.
Mr. Trump's defenders point out that he was not used to dealing with situations like the FBI investigation, and they are right. He is used to wheeling and dealing and coaxing and cajoling and applying pressure to get what he wants in a relatively unrestrained way, and I think by far the most credible explanation of what happened in those conversations with Comey was that he really and truly was unaware of how inappropriate and improper what he was doing was.
Does that make it better, or worse? I don't know. But it inclines me to the view that whether legal experts decide that his behavior constitutes obstruction of justice or not, it might be better if he were not impeached because of this incident. I say this despite my strong conviction that the sooner Mr. Trump leaves office, the better off the nation and the world will be.
Other occasions for impeachment will almost certainly arise. Donald Trump cannot help being Donald Trump, and I find it hard not to believe that at some point he is going to foul up so badly that it will be impossible to persist in all but the most disingenuous defense of his behavior. I personally believe that when Bill Clinton lied under oath, that would have been sufficient grounds to remove him from office even though it was not technically perjury. But I am still glad that he was acquitted, in retrospect. We have only had two presidents in our entire history impeached, and it would be hard to overestimate the national trauma of having one actually convicted and removed from office. Whatever else one may say of is behavior in the Watergate affair, it is to Richard Nixon's everlasting credit that he spared us that by resigning.
One of the reasons I so vehemently opposed Donald Trump's election was my longstanding conviction that given his personal character it would be only a matter of time before he was impeached under circumstances such that his conviction and removal from office was likely, and I am by no means certain that he would show the character and patriotism President Nixon did. Such is his ego that I think he might well make the Senate go ahead and convict him. We are a divided country now; were he to be removed under any circumstances in which it was even remotely possible to see his impeachment process as politically motivated it would put our system under more stress than I am confident that it could comfortably handle.
Which, again, does not mean that I do not continue to see it as highly likely that at some point Donald Trump will do something so egregious that it will be impossible for any reasonable Republican to defend him. If that happens, I hope he will have the grace and patriotism to resign. But I am not confident that such will be the case, especially because so many of his supporters would doubtless continue to defend him no matter what he did and no matter what the evidence.
If Donald Trump is impeached, and tried, and removed from office, it will need to be on grounds considerably more solid than what the President didn't know, and when he didn't know it.