Bad News for President Trump

The Comey memos are more revealing than they seem.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

One feature of the truth is that it doesn’t change much. A lie is hard to sustain. The details may change in each retelling because the liar is not actually remembering the events, but instead remembering the telling of the events. The truth, by contrast, is sticky. Consistency is not the only hallmark of truth—some people’s memories are better than other people’s memories, to be sure—but there’s a reason that inconsistency tends to discredit a witness.

If someone had told you a year ago, when news first broke that James Comey had made memos of his conversations with President Trump, that those memos would eventually come out and make little news, you probably wouldn’t have believed it. These memos are, after all, a big deal. They will play a major role in corroborating Comey’s story in the investigative setting.

But from a news perspective, they turn out to be a bit of a snooze, far more interesting for the fact of their release than for any new information they contain. Sure, there are modest bits of new information in them—that Reince Priebus asked Comey whether there was a FISA order on then-National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn, for example. But the broader theme is that they add little that is not already known.

The memos, on the whole, tell the same story as Comey told in his book. They tell the same story as he told in his congressional testimony last year. They corroborate these statements, often down to the level of the specific words spoken and the specific details reported. Notably, Comey did not have access to the memos while he was writing the book.

The truth is sticky.

There are, to be sure, minor inconsistencies between Comey’s four statements on what happened between him and the president—his written testimony to the Senate intelligence committee, his oral testimony, his book, and his contemporaneous memos. The first of the memos, for example, says that during the Trump Tower meeting at which Comey briefed the president elect on the Steele dossier, Priebus asked the assembled group if there was anything else that needed to be talked about. In the memo, Comey reports that Comey himself said there was something Clapper wanted him to speak with Trump about alone or in a small group. In the book, however, it is Clapper—not Comey—who says there is something else that Comey needs to discuss with him in a small group.

Similarly, both Comey’s memos and his book describe his leaving the Oval Office after his February 14, 2017, meeting in which Trump suggested he drop the investigation into Flynn,and running into a “large group” of people, including Priebus and then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price. In his book, Comey writes that he left the White House without speaking to anyone. In the memo, he details a short conversation with John Kelly, who he ran into on the way out of the building.

But these kinds of trivial details are the levels to which you have to go to find inconsistencies in Comey’s account over time—which is probably why nobody is even bothering. Even those Republican members of the House of Representatives who have attempted to discredit the Russia investigation by attacking the FBI are not really trying to argue that Comey’s account isn’t true. House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, and House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy argued merely in a statement Thursday that the memos only “show former Director Comey never wrote that he felt obstructed or threatened.”

The broader point about the memos is the degree to which they corroborate even minor details of the other accounts Comey has given. The consistency is the most striking when the details are shared between the book and the original memos only and are omitted from Comey’s testimony: Comey would have had access to the testimony while writing the book, so it makes sense that those accounts share details and corroborate one another. Even were he Lyin’ Comey, after all, he’d make sure to get his public story straight between two high-profile written statements. But by his own account, he had no access to the memos—which had by that point been handed over to the FBI—during the drafting of his book. So all the details shared between the memos and the book were carried over from memory. This makes it all the more notable when the memos and book share information down to the word—like when Comey describes Trump as commenting that the FBI director had had “a hell of a year” or declaring his respect for Putin as “the leader of a major country.”

Comey even uses the same image in both his memos and his book to characterize Trump’s conversational style. “It was conversation-as-jigsaw-puzzle, with pieces picked up, then discarded, then returned to,” he writes in his memo recording his January 28, 2017, dinner with Trump. In his book, he describes the president as speaking “like an oral jigsaw puzzle contest, with a shot clock … He would, in rapid-fire sequence, pick up a piece, put it down, pick up an unrelated piece, put it down, return to the original piece, on and on.” (Comey takes this opportunity in his memo to muse about the difficulty of accurately remembering a conversation with a person who speaks this way.)

In at least one instance, the memos corroborate information that Comey apparently gave to colleagues in real time but then forgot about and never wrote about in the book or testified about. The memos became public Thursday evening while Comey was on the Rachel Maddow Show. A few days before, Maddow had gotten her hands on some handwritten notes from then-Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente—who is now the FBI’s general counsel—that tended to corroborate Comey’s story. Maddow showed Comey one of Boente’s notes, in particular:

Mr. Boente in these notes is writing down what appears to be what you’re telling him about your conversation with the president. And one of the things that was most striking to us which we’ve already reported is these phrases “lift the cloud,” talking about needing relief from the Russia investigation, very, very directly tracked with what you testified to Congress about what the president told you. Mr. Boente also took a note that looks like it says, “going to bring lawsuit” with something we can’t read, “Steele.” … It looked like he was taking a note when he was talking to you about your interactions with the president [and] it looks like the president told you he was going to bring some sort of lawsuit over the Steele dossier.

Comey had apparently not remembered this particular exchange with the president and he did not include it in the book or in his testimony. But Maddow’s question jogged his memory: “You know, I have some—looking at this, I have some recollection of that. I don’t know whether it’s in my memo. I wrote a memo after that March 30th call from the president, but it actually rings a bell as I sit here.”

In fact, Comey’s March 30 memo—as Maddow discovered during the commercial break that followed—contains the following: Trump “then went on at great length, explaining that he has nothing to do with Russia (has a letter from the largest law firm in D.C. saying he has gotten no income from Russia), was not involved with hookers in Russia (can you imagine me, hookers? I have a beautiful wife, and it has been very painful), is bringing a personal lawsuit against Christopher Steele. …”

Noted Comey to Maddow, “That’s why I created them.”

If we accept that Comey’s story has been remarkably consistent over time, and has been corroborated, as Comey has also said, by the contemporaneous FBI witnesses whom he claims to have told about the events in real time—a few points follow.

First, the president will not realistically defeat an obstruction-of-justice charge—whether it arises in a criminal context or, as is more likely, as an allegation he has to contend with in the political realm—by throwing dust in the air about what happened. The effort so far to discredit Comey by declaring him a liar has the small problem, accentuated by the memos, that he is apparently telling the truth. And one person who certainly knows that he is telling the truth is Robert Mueller, who has access not merely to the memos but to all of the FBI witnesses in whom Comey confided at the time. Don’t imagine for a minute that what Comey said to them differs materially from what he said to the Senate intelligence committee, to the public, or to his file. It will all be consistent. And to the extent the president’s forces predicate their arguments on contesting Comey’s account of what happened, they will have to do so relying on the word of a man from whom The Washington Post has documented 2,436 false statements since January 20, 2017. The memos highlight vividly what we already knew: that the facts are a loser for the president.

Second, it follows that the president will have to make his defense on obstruction on different grounds: Ultimately, he’s going to have to argue that the conduct Comey is describing is acceptable behavior. This would be a tricky business under the best of circumstances, because it’s so manifestly not acceptable behavior in a president. The problem for Trump is that he is most unlikely to get to make this argument under anything like the best of circumstances. Comey’s story may be the pointy end of the spear the president is facing, but it is not the spear itself—just a piece of it. There’s a lot, after all, that Jim Comey doesn’t know, that isn’t in his testimony, that isn’t in his book, and that isn’t in these memos.

The result is that, third, the facts are likely to get worse—maybe much worse—for Trump. Mueller, remember, doesn’t just know Comey knows. He also has access not only to all the FBI documents and witnesses but also to all the White House documents. He has access as well to all the White House witnesses. He has had all the key White House staff in front of his team. The only one whose story the public has heard so far is Comey. But that does not mean Comey’s story represents a full accounting of the conduct for which Trump will have to answer to Mueller. Does it seem likely that the picture is going to look better for the president when we see Comey’s story in the context of the accounts of those of other witnesses? Or that those other witnesses, when faced with possible jail time for lying to the FBI in their own interviews, told stories that will soften public judgment of the president’s behavior?

In his book, writing about his work as U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, Comey describes how prosecutors draw from a “reservoir of trust and credibility” to do their work. His characterization of the importance of trust to a prosecutor’s work also holds for the role of a witness. Whatever you think of Comey’s actions over the course of 2016, the consistency of his accounts of his interactions with Trump adds more water to that well.

Comey didn’t make this point, but a subject of a criminal investigation, when that person is a public figure, also has a reservoir of trust and credibility. Trump and his supporters are defending the president by arguing that Comey, among others, is lying—but making that argument in the absence of any evidence, and while the body of information corroborating Comey’s account only grows, requires drawing down Team Trump’s own reservoir. And the level of that particular reservoir is, at this stage, very, very low.

Mueller is apparently close to done with his obstruction probe and preparing a report of some kind. Some portion of that report is going to hinge on the credibility of James Comey. For those who were in doubt, the memos give powerful reason to expect that this portion of the report will be damning with respect to the president’s conduct. But, remember, the memos are boring. The question is how much worse things look when new evidence emerges, and it’s all in one place.

You can’t make websites calling everyone a liar.