James Comey started talking about his experience with President Trump. Now, let’s take a look at what really mattered in his prepared statement.
In the rush to get some words out on what former FBI Director James Comey testified to today, many media outlets and political organizations are pointing out something that is largely inconsequential – that Comey admitted more than once that he told President Trump that the FBI was not investigating him personally.
The reason why this is meaningless is very simple, and was included in the prepared statement below. Comey was telling the president the truth, for each moment when the question was asked (or when Comey personally felt it needed to be said.) The truly important point about this issue is the fact that Comey repeatedly refused to publicly state that there was no investigation into the president personally. That didn’t happen because if eventually the FBI investigation did lead to the point where Trump was personally being investigated, Comey and the FBI would have to correct the statement, and that would cause a loss of faith in the FBI.
And that is the core of this entire situation – faith in the independence of the FBI.
Trump is not a politician, does not understand how our government works when it comes to the administration dealing with agencies like the FBI, and Comey’s testimony shows that in severe terms. A long time ago, I remember how some journalists would refer to their colleagues missing the “shiny object” in a given story – the facet that is really important, as opposed to whatever the rest of the crowd has latched onto that day. There are a few of those in this testimony, and I’m guessing that many people on both sides would prefer to avoid talking about them.
The first one is the frequency with which Trump spoke with Comey on a one-on-one basis – nine times in four months, which was compared with two during Comey’s entire tenure under Obama. Before anyone tries to minimize this, it is time to point out the second shiny object.
Trump has repeatedly ignored the chain of command within the Justice Department. The FBI Director is not supposed to be taking multiple private conversations with the president, because he has a boss who is closer to the presidency – the Attorney General. That structure is not arbitrary – it is because the FBI is supposed to remain independent of the political fray. It is supposed to be a non-partisan investigative agency. Trump did not understand this, and arguably still doesn’t.
Understanding that places the entire conversation about loyalty in an appropriate light, and brings us to a third shiny object. Trump was absolutely wrong to request loyalty (or anything else that was mentioned in Comey’s testimony.) Comey was wrong to keep answering his phone. That’s right, I am saying that the Director of the FBI should have either refused to take calls from the president, or otherwise managed to get himself off the phone before any real conversations could happen, once he knew what the president wanted. Comey knew that Trump was going to keep asking for things that shouldn’t have been requested at all in the first place. Since he couldn’t just tell him to stop, he should have played the waxed paper game, claimed the calls were breaking up, and hung up if nothing else would work.
The people voted for Trump, and handed agencies like the FBI an amateur who has no idea how to deal with government agencies and intelligence operations. Well, the president knows how to get around agency regulations (for his own profit), and he thinks he knows how to rip agencies he doesn’t like apart through massive budget cuts. But, Trump has no idea how to deal with having employees who don’t actually answer to him in a direct way. He thought that Comey should deal with him that way, and Comey failed miserably at teaching Trump how government works. For the people who are sitting on the sidelines cheering about Trump slaying the evil intelligence machine, and ripping apart their chain of command, we can revisit why it’s important to keep agencies like the FBI independent from the administration the next time we’re cleaning up a mess that would have been prevented if this administration hadn’t started mucking up the works. Personally, I hope whatever that mess is just involves some dirty dealings with Putin, as opposed to having a body count.
Just a final thought: How paranoid does one have to be in order to repeatedly harangue someone else about a “cloud” over his head?