The Republican Party is racing to assassinate James Comey’s character before his tell-all book hits shelves next Tuesday. The former FBI director’s literary debut is expected to paint Donald Trump as an authoritarian oaf with no respect for the rule of law. The Republican National Committee has built a website explaining why you shouldn’t believe that.
With the White House’s blessing, the RNC is launching a multifaceted campaign to rebrand George W. Bush’s deputy attorney general as “Lyin’ Comey.” The party is airing digital ads and dispersing talking points to Republican officials across the country, all built around three core arguments:
1) “Comey has a long history of misstatements and misconduct,” including damage caused to the FBI because of “bizarre decisions, contradictory statements and acting against Department of Justice and FBI protocol.”
2) “Attempts to smear the Trump administration are nothing more than retaliation by a disgraced former official.”
3) “Comey isn’t credible – just ask Democrats.” The digital ads will show several Democrats calling for Comey’s resignation after he injected himself into the 2016 presidential race, including House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who is shown saying: “All I can tell you is the FBI Director has no credibility.”
This case is, of course, mendacious and absurd. Yes, Democrats (rightly) criticized Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation. But that is only relevant if Trump can credibly claim that he fired Comey in response to those complaints. And he can’t — both because he applauded the very action that Democrats criticized most, and because Trump has already said, on national television, that he fired Comey because he disapproved of the FBI’s Russia probe.
And then, there’s the inconvenient fact that James Comey hasn’t actually told very many demonstrable lies. Trump landed a clean (if ironic) hit on the former FBI director when he derided him as a “showboat.” There is something a bit unseemly about Comey’s love of the spotlight (let alone about his cashing in on abetting the election of Donald Trump). But he’s just not that big of a liar — a reality that “lyincomey.com” inadvertently affirms. Here’s how the website “fact checks” Comey’s claim that Trump attempted to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into Michael Flynn:
No matter what his grandstanding book says, Comey has already confirmed multiple times under oath that neither President Trump nor his staff asked him to stop the Russia investigation.
SEN. RICHARD BURR: Director Comey, did the president at any time ask you to stop the FBI investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections?
DIR. COMEY: Not to my understanding, no.
Of course, there isn’t actually any contradiction between Comey’s answer and his allegation. Trump could have tried to obstruct certain lines of the FBI’s investigation into his campaign, without ordering an end to the broader probe into Russian interference.
But such quibbles are ultimately beside the point. The hype around Comey’s book and the RNC’s attempts to discredit it both proceed from the same false premise: that James Comey has something important to reveal about Donald Trump that Donald Trump has not already revealed about himself.
Comey’s primary allegation is that the president has contempt for the concept of equality before the law, and believes that the Justice Department’s first loyalty should be to him, not the Constitution (the title of Comey’s memoir, A Higher Loyalty, is an implicit reference to this charge). The thing is, we don’t actually need to take Comey’s word for that.
The president has said, publicly and repeatedly, that he believes he has the “absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department.” He has suggested that former attorney general Eric Holder helped Barack Obama get away with illegal acts — and praised Holder for doing so, telling the New York Times, “When you look at the things that they did, and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that, I’ll be honest.” Meanwhile, the president berates his own attorney general for failing to display such loyalty on a near-daily basis.
There is no “he said-he said” here. Trump might officially deny that he pressured Comey to drop his investigation into Flynn. But he’s made it perfectly clear that he thinks he had the right to do so. The substance of Trump’s dispute with Comey is not about whether he has tried to compromise the independence of federal law enforcement; it’s about whether federal law enforcement should be independent of his will. For legal and political reasons, Trump’s allies have tried to pretend they’re having the former argument. And to an extent, the mainstream media has followed suit — because if we all stopped pretending that there was any mystery about the president’s contempt for the rule of law, we’d have to confront the fact that one of America’s major political parties is actively helping a would-be authoritarian consolidate power over the Justice Department. And acknowledging that objective fact would make it quite difficult for mainstream news outlets to maintain their “objectivity.”