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James Comey testimony:The G-Men Take On the Don

The ex-FBI director’s testimony against the US president has opened the floodgates to probably months of inquiry. The final judgment, however, will be in the court of public opinion.

opinion Updated: Jun 09, 2017 19:46 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
James Comey,Donald Trump,USA
Former FBI Director James Comey is sworn in during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday in Washington. (AP)

There was an audible gasp in the packed hearing room of the United States Senate intelligence committee when ex-FBI director James Comey accused President Donald Trump of telling “lies, plan and simple.” The foremost law enforcement officer in the country had called the chief executive a purveyor of untruths. And he said it more than once. The question about Russian interference in the last US presidential elections is now almost a moot point. With Comey’s testimony, Washington is now descending into a battle over the future of the Trump presidency. The struggle will be fought on a number of levels.

One is the political. Comey can say whatever he wants against Trump, but ultimately only the US Congress decides the legal fate of a sitting US president. In a legislature dominated by members of Trump’s own Republican party, the congressmen will only act when the weight of public opinion is overwhelmingly against him. Comey’s testimony is damaging, but not enough to crack the 30% of voters who still stand by Trump. In an ABC/Washington Post polls taken before the testimony, 71% of Republicans said the president had done the right in sacking the FBI director. But this inquiry, another Senate investigation and a legal investigation by another FBI alumnus, Special Counsel Bob Mueller, are have just begun and each may take months if not years to conclude. Beltway sources say the midterm election results next year will be the real determinant of whether Congress decides to contemplate the “I” word: impeachment.

No Republican senator was prepared to question Comey’s credibility or integrity. Many seem to take his comments at face value. The Republican speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, seemed to admit Trump lied by saying only, “The president’s new to this. He’s new to government.” The Republican National Committee was more partisan, calling Comey’s statement “a last minute attempt” to “save face.”

Another level is the legal. Recent US presidents who have faced impeachment, namely Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, have been tripped up less by the original criminal charge than by the lesser charge of covering up. Nixon was nailed on an “obstruction of justice” claim. Clinton by perjury. There had been an expectation Comey would accuse Trump, after laying out how the president tried to block his Russian investigation, of obstruction. Comey did lay out what happened, gave minimal interpretation but made it clear he was leaving the criminal legal part of it all to Special Counsel Mueller. “I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct,” he said. Comey sees his testimony and the Senate investigations as being preliminaries to Mueller’s inquiry. His job was to lay out the evidence, helpfully naming people who can be called to testify in his favour and then letting the law takes it course. As commented, “West Wing fears Mueller way more than Comey.”

Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, publicly denied parts of Comey’s testimony including the ex-FBI director’s claim that Trump told him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” This pits Comey’s version of events directly against Trump’s. If the president is ever forced to speak under oath and it is judged that Comey’s version is correct, Trump is guilty of perjury – a felony that is actionable by impeachment. In fact, Comey’s laid several “perjury traps”. The US president’s Twitter account was silent during the testimony but statements like Kasowitz’s may come back to haunt him.

The third level is credibility. Comey’s remarkable testimony will ultimately be compared with Trump’s version of events. A long line of people will now slowly follow. Comey noted that his chief of staff and the FBI leadership team were party to some of what he talked about with Trump. The US president may have other people who will testify in his favour. As the two narratives are increasingly fleshed out and then run against each other, the credibility of each side will be tested in the court of public opinion. Each side will fear a witness in their camp who will, fearful of a felony charge or experiencing a change of heart, who turn against them and sink their credibility. Trump may be his side’s greatest liability as he seems to have difficulty distinguishing between fact and fantasy. The court of credibility is a major input into where congressional opinion goes.

Comey confessed he leaked to the media against the president. The Trump team will use this to portray him as something other than the squeaky-clean civil servant he claims to be. The FBI director seems to have decided it would be best to come clean on this because, in a protracted triple inquiry, it was likely to come out anyway.

Whatever else is clear, RussiaGate will now consume the Trump presidency. Legislation will be hard to pass, Congress will be difficult to work with, a staff exodus from the White House can be expected and, most important, the president will be even more distracted and dysfunctional than he already is. The rest of the world is hereby warned. Washington will be closed for business for two years because of court duty.

First Published: Jun 09, 2017 19:44 IST