Whatever James Comey’s statement to (and testimony before) the Senate Intelligence Committee does and does not establish in terms of potential obstruction of justice by the president in trying to mess with ongoing FBI investigations, it paints an indelible picture of a president with no knowledge of, or respect for, the most basic legal constraints on how he conducts himself.
The Comey statement reinforces a strong impression already created by the president’s manifest contempt for federal judges and the “politically correct” laws they enforce — and even for his own Justice Department’s efforts to comply with those laws. He seems to assume the right to say and do whatever he wants that he enjoyed as a real-estate executive should apply even more to the World’s Most Powerful Man. That all that power comes with countervailing limits put in place to prevent autocracy does not seem to have occurred to him.
Trump again and again horrifies Comey by insisting on private meetings and conversations that from the FBI director’s point of view are inherently inappropriate and dangerous. One meeting before Trump took office was one-on-one because Comey wanted to brief Trump on certain embarrassing allegations about his circle that had no apparent basis in fact. But once he took office, and the FBI’s independence (aside from the fact that it was in an ongoing investigation that might implicate Trump associates) became an issue, it was Trump relentlessly insisting on private discussions that made Comey extremely uncomfortable.
At the January 27 dinner where Trump asked Comey for loyalty, the FBI director had assumed others would be present. Worse yet, at the February 14 Oval Office meeting where the president asked that the FBI stop investigating Michael Flynn, several high-ranking members of the intelligence community and the attorney general were present when Trump asked Comey to stay behind for a private meeting. It was as though Trump was flaunting his contempt for the rules of the road, if indeed he was aware of the rules to begin with.
After that incident, says Comey:
I took the opportunity to implore the Attorney General to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me. I told the AG that what had just happened – him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind – was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply.
After that request, Trump called Comey twice to talk about the Russia investigation, and especially his desire that Comey find some way to let the whole world know the president was not the target of the investigation (as it happened, Trump disclosed that bit of news himself in his letter firing Comey). If Sessions remonstrated with Trump about direct communication with Comey, it had no effect.
Indeed, as Lawfareblog’s Ben Wittes notes, Trump’s attitude goes far beyond respecting Comey’s “space” via direct communications: The president is constantly trying to draw Comey into a subordinate relationship:
Comey is explicit that he saw Trump as attempting to enmesh him in an inappropriate relationship at the time. Of the January 27 dinner, for example, he writes that, “My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.” And it’s hard to read this meeting any other way.
You’d have to figure that at some point since taking office some intimate of the president’s would have noted his preoccupation with Comey and said: Hey, Boss, this is the kind of crap that lost Richard Nixon the presidency. You don’t mess with people who are investigating you. But maybe the people around him have figured out — as Jeff Sessions seems to have figured out — that you don’t tell Donald Trump what he can’t do.
The fact that Comey is testifying about this before a committee run by Trump’s own political party shows that the limits he doesn’t acknowledge nonetheless exist. But it does make you worry about what this president might do in an emergency situation where his actual powers are expanded and his perception of omnipotence swells beyond any precedent.