Team Trump’s Response to Comey’s Testimony Is an Assault on Reason

A critique of poor reasoning. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Donald Trump would like you to know that James Comey is a shameless liar whose testimony cannot be trusted — and, also, a reliable source whose testimony totally and completely vindicates the president.

The president’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, lays out this case with a bit more eloquence. First, Kasowitz explains that the part of Comey’s testimony that Trump liked is definitely true.

Contrary to numerous false press accounts leading up to today’s hearing, Mr. Comey has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the President privately: The President was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference. He also admitted that there is no evidence that a single vote changed as a result of any Russian interference.

The second claim here is a bit curious. It’s true that Comey ruled out the possibility that Russian agents hacked voting machines and directly manipulated ballot counts. But the idea that Russia’s myriad (alleged) efforts to undermine the Clinton campaign did not change “a single vote” is both intuitively dubious, and impossible for anyone to validate. (Furthermore, it’s a tad odd for Kasowitz to insist on the perfect legitimacy of November’s vote, given that the president’s official position is that 3 to 5 million votes were cast illegally.)

To be fair to team Trump, however, Kasowitz’s first claim is sound. When Trump penciled the bizarre caveat, “while I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation,” into his letter terminating the FBI director, many observers thought he was bluffing. Comey just made it clear that they thought wrong.

That said, even on this count, Trump’s vindication is far from complete. For one thing, Comey’s testimony stipulates that he never ruled out the possibility that Trump could become a target of the Russia inquiry — the former FBI director refused to publicly state that the president wasn’t under investigation “because it would create a duty to correct, should that change.”

More significantly, Comey’s testimony strongly suggested that the president is now under federal investigation. On Thursday, the former FBI director was asked, repeatedly, whether he believed Trump had committed obstruction of justice. Comey refused to directly opine on that matter. But he did say that he believed “the special counsel will work toward” a conclusion on that question, and that it was “ [special counsel] Bob Mueller’s job to sort that out.”

In other words: He thinks that Trump’s conduct toward him came close enough to constituting obstruction of justice that special prosector Robert Mueller will at least consider such a charge. Given Comey’s long working relationship with Mueller, it seems reasonable to trust his judgment on that.

At Thursday’s hearing, several Republican senators assumed the role of Trump’s defense attorney. But none felt comfortable accusing the former G-man of perjury. Instead, they opted to search for exonerating details within Comey’s own narrative.

Senator James Risch, for one, put great emphasis on the fact that Trump never literally ordered Comey to drop the FBI’s investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Rather, Risch noted, Trump had merely said that he “hoped” Comey would drop the investigation (after demanding that the FBI director pledge personal loyalty to him, and ordering everyone else in the Oval Office that day — including the attorney general — to leave the room so that he could express his fondest wishes to Comey, one on one).

It is a testament to the weakness of Risch’s argument that Trump’s actual defense attorney felt compelled to reject Comey’s story outright:

[T]he President never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including suggesting that that Mr. Comey “let Flynn go.” As he publicly stated the next day, he did say to Mr. Comey, “General Flynn is a good guy, he has been through a lot” and also “asked how is General Flynn is doing.”… The President also never told Mr. Comey, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” in form or substance.

So, again: The story is, James Comey is a man who is comfortable telling profoundly consequential lies about the president, under oath — but, also, is a reliable source for the claim that Trump was never under investigation during Comey’s time at the bureau.

This type of dissonance haunts Kasowitz’s stronger arguments. On Thursday, Comey admitted to leaking memos on his interactions with Trump to the press, with the aim of triggering the appointment of a special prosecutor.

Legal experts who spoke with the Los Angeles Times said that executive privilege did not bar Comey from discussing his private conversations with the president. After all, Comey is no longer an administration official, and Trump has publicly discussed his contacts with Comey, thereby waiving any claim to privilege.

But Kasowitz observes that, according to press accounts, Comey shared information about his interactions with Trump while he was still in government:

The leaks of this privileged information began no later than March 2017 when friends of Mr. Comey have stated he disclosed to them the conversations he had with the President during their January 27, 2017 dinner and February 14, 2017 White House meeting.

This argument would be more compelling if Kasowitz hadn’t previously claimed that Comey’s accounts of both that dinner and White House meeting were fabrications. If Trump never asked the FBI director to pledge loyalty to him — or to drop the investigation into Flynn — then Comey wasn’t discussing privileged information, but merely regaling friends with fictional stories.

Words the president never said can’t be confidential.

Kasowitz is on stronger ground in noting an apparent contradiction in Comey’s narrative about why and when he decided to leak the memos, themselves.

Although Mr. Comey testified he only leaked the memos in response to a tweet, the public record reveals that the New York Times was quoting from these memos the day before the referenced tweet, which belies Mr. Comey’s excuse for this unauthorized disclosure of privileged information and appears to entirely retaliatory.

Two days after Comey was fired, the Times ran a story on his awkward dinner date with the president, which matched the account in the FBI director’s memos nearly verbatim. That article was the ostensible impetus for Trump’s threat to release secret recordings of his conversations with Comey, which the president tweeted the following morning.

The Times story was sourced to friends of Comey, rather than to the memos themselves. But the precision of the report’s details suggests that the former FBI director decided to disseminate the substance of his memos before Trump’s tweet.

This odd timeline combined with the plausible claim that Comey’s memos were FBI documents — and, thus, potentially classified, albeit at a low level — give team Trump a shiny object to try and deflect attention to.

And deflect, they shall: CNN reports that Kasowitz is preparing to file a complaint against Comey with the Justice Department Inspector General and the Senate Judiciary Committee. The most such complaints could accomplish, legally, would be to bar Comey from seeking employment at the Justice Department again. But politically, they’ll give Trump’s supporters cause for shouting “Lock him up” about someone other than their champion.

Regardless, there’s little question that Comey is within his rights to discuss his private conversations with the president. The concern here appears purely legalistic: Once fired, Comey could have paraphrased his memos to the New York Times without prompting concerns about confidentiality, according to most legal analysts, anyway. But handing over the documents themselves could, potentially, be construed as a leak of FBI materials.

Why anyone who isn’t invested, financially or emotionally, in defending Donald Trump should care about this distinction is difficult to say.

Ultimately, team Trump’s response shows that they have no sound defense against Comey’s allegations. The former FBI director’s story is too damning to accept and spin, as Risch tried to do on Thursday. And Trump’s history of mendacity is far too long to win a he-said-he-said dispute with James Comey.

Or so Capitol Hill Republicans seem to think, according to Politico:

Forget what the White House thinks of yesterday’s testimony. We spent the day in the Capitol, talking to Republican members of Congress – the ones that have to vote on President Donald Trump’s agenda – and they were absolutely shocked at how poorly yesterday went for the president. Publicly they say that the president is a political neophyte who is still learning the presidency. But privately, they said James Comey was extraordinarily convincing and Trump’s team absolutely botched their response. They’re all afraid of more shoes dropping.

Trump may not be guilty of obstruction of justice. But he is doubtlessly guilty of an abuse of power that a more adversarial Congress could impeach him for.

The president can neither admit this, nor credibly dispute it. So, instead, he is spewing lies — paired with mutually exclusive half-truths — that undermine his supporters’ tolerance for rational thought, and reassure them that Donald Trump is the arbiter of all truth. And his truth is marching on.

Team Trump’s Response to Comey Is an Assault on Reason