The most widely reported statement from Donald Trump’s NBC News interview with Lester Holt concerns this tidbit about the process of firing FBI Director James Comey: “When I decided to just do it,” Trump explained on camera, “I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing, with Trump and Russia, is a made up story, it’s an excuse for the Democrats to have lost an election that they should have won.”
The moment is clearly newsworthy.
As Kevin Drum put it at Mother Jones, “there's the president himself, on national TV, telling everyone that the Russia investigation was at the top of his mind when he decided to fire Comey.” Even so, Trump then explicitly stated that trying to thwart the Russia investigation wasn’t his motivation for terminating the FBI director. Trump lies and misleads too much to take his word for anything, especially given that the reasons his memo cited for the firing are not credibly his motivation. Still, this wasn’t the clear admission of guilt some Trump critics want to see.
That’s why another portion of the Lester Holt interview strikes me as more important. Trump repeats his claim, contained in his letter terminating Comey, that the FBI director told him on three occasions that he was not under criminal investigation. (The FBI does not seem to have Trump under personal investigation so far.)
“I had a dinner with him,” Trump began. “He wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on. We had a very nice dinner at the White House. The dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said, I’ll consider it. We’ll see what happens.” Note that statement. In Trump’s telling, Comey asked to stay on, and Trump said, “I’ll consider it. We’ll see what happens.”
Here’s what Trump said next on NBC:
“We had a very nice dinner. And at that time he told me you are not under investigation. Which I knew anyway. First of all, when you’re under investigation, you’re giving all sorts of documents and everything else, so I knew that I was not under.” As the Washington Post put it, “The exchange as described by the president is remarkable since he said the FBI director was discussing an ongoing investigation with the president — something Justice Department policy generally prohibits — at the same time Comey was seeking assurances he would remain in his job.”
Now back to the NBC interview.
“Then, during another phone call, he said it,” Trump continued, “and during another phone call he said it. He said it once at dinner and he said it twice during phone calls.”
“Did you call him?” Holt asked.
“In one case I called him and in one case he called me,” Trump answered.
“And did you ask, ‘Am I under investigation?’” Holt asked.
“I actually asked him, yes,” Trump answered. “I said, ‘If it’s possible, would you let me know, am I under investigation? He said, ‘You are not under investigation.’”
Again, Trump is a serial liar whose account of events cannot be trusted. Still, it is noteworthy that according to the president, the FBI director asked to keep his job; Trump replied “we’ll see what happens;” and later, Trump, having made no job guarantee, called the FBI director––perhaps after figuring out that targets of criminal investigations aren’t tipped off with paperwork–– and asked if he could be tipped off, though the FBI would never provide that courtesy to a less-connected individual.
At best, that is unethical behavior. It unquestionably violates clear, longstanding norms. And it is the context for Trump later saying, “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing, with Trump and Russia, is a made up story, it’s an excuse for the Democrats to have lost an election that they should have won.”
It is the context for White House spokesperson Kellyanne Conway offering this explanation for why Comey was fired: “I think this is an all of the above answer, that the president has been watching. And the president expects people who are serving in his administration to be loyal to the country and to be loyal to the administration.”
And is vital context for this New York Times story:
Only seven days after Donald J. Trump was sworn in as president, James B. Comey has told associates, the F.B.I. director was summoned to the White House for a one-on-one dinner with the new commander in chief. The conversation that night in January, Mr. Comey now believes, was a harbinger of his downfall this week as head of the F.B.I., according to two people who have heard his account of the dinner.
As they ate, the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and the crowd sizes at Mr. Trump’s rallies. The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him. Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, Mr. Comey has recounted to others, he told Mr. Trump that he would always be honest with him, but that he was not “reliable” in the conventional political sense.
The White House says this account is not correct.
The anonymously sourced New York Times account is much more damning for Trump. But notice that even Trump’s version of events, as he recounts them, is damning, even apart from the ways that it flatly contradicts recent White House statements.
One final point is worth noting. Among some commentators, there is a belief that this story matters only if Trump is, in fact, trying to prevent the FBI from discovering collusion between his campaign and Russia.
But that isn’t so.
It could be that Trump is earnestly convinced that there was no collusion—that Trump fired Comey in part because he genuinely believed the FBI director to be squandering time on a fake controversy—but that, unbeknownst to Trump, someone in his orbit did coordinate with Russia or Wikileaks during the campaign. Indeed, since Trump cannot know whether or not such coordination happened, it would be highly inappropriate for him to interfere in the investigation even if it ultimately turns out that he is right and there was never any collusion with the Russians.
As Bob Bauer writes at Lawfare:
The President may have landed himself in these difficulties simply because of his insensitivity to the requirements for safeguarding the integrity of the legal process. That is to say, he may not have intended to commit anything like obstruction, or any other crime, but has instead blundered into this position because he does not recognize or respect norms and does not appreciate legal process or institutional boundaries. There is a hint of this, or perhaps more, in press reports that one of his principal objections to Mr. Comey was that the FBI Director might not have been "loyal."
Was Mr. Comey's stance on the President’s legal status, and on the Russia-Trump campaign legal probe, a question for Mr. Trump of the Director’s “loyalty”? If so, it would not be irrational or irresponsible for the question to be asked whether it was for "loyalty" that Mr. Trump was testing when pressing Comey three times about his legal status, as the Director’s tenure in office was left hanging in the air. It would also not be unreasonable to ask whether Mr. Comey lost his job because he failed this loyalty test.
This week’s statements by Trump and Conway do not provide definitive evidence that Trump fired Comey to thwart the Russia investigation, or otherwise interfered in it. But they do expose clear White House obfuscations, offer circumstantial evidence for interference, and open up Trump to a possible obstruction of justice investigation. Whether or not that is the legal response to Trump and Conway, their words only bolster the case that the political response to Comey’s firing should be widespread concern in the legislative branch—and an effort to hedge against worst-case scenarios.