Well, the most highly anticipated day in recent political memory finally arrived. Here’s what you need to know.
1. James Comey Said That Donald Trump Is a Liar
Trump’s initial rationale behind Comey’s firing pertained to his (mis)handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server. But based on Trump’s own statements that the “Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” Comey smelled bullshit, and he told the Senate Intelligence Committee: “well there was an explanation, I just don’t buy it.”
After Senator Mark Warner asked Comey why he felt compelled to document the incident in the Oval Office where Trump cornered him to talk about Michael Flynn, part of Comey’s response included an outright admission that he was fearful the president would mischaracterize that exchange.
“I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document. That combination of things I had never experienced before, but had led me to believe I got to write it down and write it down in a very detailed way.”
I know that we’re all super jaded about our politics to the point where a detailed story based on the president’s own financial filings which reveal that he stole money from kids with cancer is barely a blip on our radar, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the former FBI Director was so disturbed by the president’s actions that he felt comfortable calling him a liar in front of the entire nation.
2. Comey Felt the Need to Protect the FBI from the President
In response to a question about Comey documenting his infamous Oval Office encounter with the president, he was shockingly candid about his personal assessment of the president (emphasis mine).
As I said, a combination of things. A gut feeling is an important overlay, but the circumstances, that I was alone, the subject matter and the nature of the person I was interacting with and my read of that person. Yeah, and really just gut feel, laying on top of all of that, that this is going to be important to protect this organization, that I make records of this.
Nothing in this hearing shook me more than the subtext of this quote—that James Comey seemed to view the President of the United States as a threat to the FBI. There are so many crazy stories coming out of today that this segment is already getting lost in the madness, but these sequences should be permanently implanted in our brains: the head of the FBI anticipated that the president would lie about the nature of their meeting, and viewed him as a threat to the organization. Wow…just…wow.
3. Mike Pence Lied about His Knowledge of Mike Flynn’s Alleged Illegal Activity
The thing that many Republicans have been falling back on is that Mike Pence is immune to the parade of lies that is the Trump Administration. Essentially, they’ve characterized him like Kevin Bacon at the end of Animal House.
Our vice president was supposedly kept in the dark by the entire administration about Mike Flynn’s blatant violations, even though Mike Pence was the head of Trump’s transition team and therefore would be abdicating his responsibilities if he did not know about Mike Flynn’s sordid recent history. On March 9th, the Vice President of the United States told Fox News that “hearing that story today was the first I heard of it.” “That story” is the report that Mike Flynn was being paid by the Turkish government to lobby for them while serving in the United States government.
As recently as three weeks ago, Pence was sticking by this story, releasing a statement saying that he “stands by his comments in March upon first hearing the news regarding General Flynn’s ties to Turkey and fully supports the president’s decision to ask for General Flynn’s resignation.”
From today’s testimony:
Senator Ron Wyden: Vice president Pence was the head of the transition. To your knowledge, was he aware of the concerns about Michael Flynn prior to or during general Flynn’s tenure as national security adviser?
Comey: I don’t — you’re asking including up to the time when Flynn was —
Comey: Forced to resign? My understanding is that he was. I’m trying to remember where I get that understanding from. I think from acting attorney general Yates.
James Comey said all of this under oath, so until Mike Pence or Donald Trump do the same, his testimony should be taken more seriously than any statement prepared or released by the president and vice president’s lawyers.
4. Donald Trump Was Not Under Investigation
James Comey’s opening statement submitted yesterday confirms Trump’s assertion that he was told on three separate occasions he is not under investigation. This is beyond dispute. However, there is a very important caveat. The “investigation” that Comey and Trump have both spoken of is a counterintelligence investigation, where the focus is not like that of a traditional criminal investigation, as Comey told Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina.
If the FBI receives a credible allegation that there is some effort to co-opt, coerce, direct, employ covertly an American on behalf of the foreign power, that’s the basis on which a counterintelligence investigation is opened.
One member of senior leadership at the FBI disagreed with Comey’s decision to tell Trump he was not under investigation, as Comey told Mark Warner:
One of the members of the leadership team had a view that although it was technically true we did not have a counter-intelligence file case open on then President-elect Trump. His concern was because we’re looking at the potential, again, that’s the subject of the investigation, coordination between the campaign and Russia, because it was President Trump, President-elect Trump’s campaign, this person’s view was inevitably his behavior, his conduct will fall within the scope of that work. And so he was reluctant to make the statement. I disagreed.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are running a victory lap around D.C., proclaiming that the Democratic narrative that the president is under investigation a complete fallacy. However, that’s an analytical determination of a literal statement rooted in the past, as Comey continued:
I thought it was fair to say what was literally true. There was not a counterintelligence investigation of Mr. Trump, and I decided in the moment to say it, given the nature of our conversation.
At the time of James Comey’s briefing to Trump, the president himself was not the subject of a counterintelligence investigation, but Comey revealed that some in the FBI believed that this could be the case in the future. The specter of the Hillary Clinton investigation hanging over all this fueled his decision to not go public, as Comey highlighted that “the concern would be, obviously, because as that boomerang comes back it’s going to be a very big deal because there will be a duty to correct.”
Comey said that Clinton wasn’t under investigation, and then created a giant shitstorm when he had come out later asserting that new evidence revealed she actually was the target of an inquiry. Comey wanted to avoid repeating this ordeal with Trump.
The other caveat is that the special investigation headed by former FBI Director Robert Mueller is likely a criminal investigation, according to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. After Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein briefed Congress on the new special counsel being launched, Graham told reporters the next day that “the takeaway I have is everything he said was that you need to treat this investigation as if it may a criminal investigation.”
So yes, Trump wasn’t under a counterintelligence investigation. Outside those parameters? Only time will tell.
5. Senator Kamala Harris Knows Something about Jeff Sessions
Kamala Harris is a former prosecutor, so that means she understands to never ask a question that she doesn’t know the answer to. The thing to keep in mind while assessing this hearing is that every Senator’s questions are informed by what they have been told in a classified setting. In light of that fact, Kamala Harris’ line of questioning seemed designed to demonstrate how deep this probe goes. Here is how she opened her time.
Harris: Are you aware of any meetings between Trump administration officials and Russia officials during the campaign that have not been acknowledged by those officials in the White House?
Comey: That’s not — even if I remembered clearly, that’s not a question I can answer in open setting.
Harris: Are you aware of any questions by Trump campaign officials or associates of the campaign to hide their communications with Russia officials through encrypted means?
Comey: I have to give you the same answer.
Harris: In the course of the FBI’s investigation, did you ever come across anything that suggested that communication, records, documents or other evidence had been destroyed?
Comey: I think I’ve got to give you the same answer because it would touch on investigative matters.
Harris: And are you aware of any potential efforts to conceal between campaign officials and Russian officials?
Comey: I have to give you the same answer.
This is deliberate. She’s not fishing around for answers; she knows damn well that Comey can’t respond to those questions in an open setting, so what is she getting at? Well, here’s her next question.
Harris: What is your understanding of the parameters of Attorney General Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation?
Comey referred her to a written release provided by the Department of Justice, and Harris continued to prod Comey for answers on what he knew about Sessions’ recusal, but Comey did not reveal anything, eventually saying “I don’t know of any information that would lead me to believe he did something to touch the Russia investigation after recusal.”
We know that Jeff Sessions did not disclose his communications with the Russian ambassador. Harris asked about Trump associates communicating with Russian officials. Comey said he couldn’t speak about it in an open setting. Then Harris immediately transitioned to questions surrounding Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russian investigation. That’s not by accident. This exchange with Ron Wyden earlier should also alarm Jeff Sessions.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.