The former FBI director threw out a trail of clues for the special counsel to follow in the Trump-Russia investigation, which looks set to shadow his presidency
By David Smith in Washington | The Guardian | Sunday 11 June 2017 06.34 EDT
At 10.20pm, Kellyanne Conway wandered in from the landscaped gardens of the British ambassador’s residence, built in the 1920s and resembling an English country house in the heart of Washington. An Andy Warhol portrait of the Queen watched from above the ornate fireplace as results of the British election flashed up on a giant TV screen.
Conway, a senior adviser at the White House, could not quite escape questions about former FBI director James Comey’s testimony earlier in the day. Donald Trump had “never intended to tweet” during the session, she told the Guardian, with a dismissive air that implied he had much better things to do.
But the president, who broke his Twitter silence less than eight hours later, may be in a similar position to Theresa May. He survived for sure, but with a self-inflicted wound that could yet prove mortal. Comey threw out a trail of clues for special counsel Robert Mueller to follow in his investigation of Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia, which looks set to shadow his presidency for years.
“History will remember it as a significant inflection point,” said Norm Eisen, former ethics czar under Barack Obama. “We’ve had leaked and hearsay evidence before but now, for the first time, we had direct evidence of obstruction of justice. It was a giant step forward towards accountability for Trump, but there will be many more giant steps necessary.”
What Comey did not say may ultimately prove as telling as what he did during his blockbuster questioning by members of the Senate intelligence committee. Although he declined to describe Trump’s plea on behalf of Michael Flynn as obstruction of justice, Comey made the first public suggestion that Mueller will investigate the president himself. “That’s a conclusion that I’m sure the special counsel will work towards to try and understand what the intention was there and whether that’s an offence,” he said.
Republicans seized on Comey’s remark that Trump is not “literally” under a counterintelligence investigation and was content for his “satellites” to be scrutinised if necessary. But when the ex-FBI director was asked if the direction of the investigation could include the president, he carefully replied: “As I explained, the concern of one of my senior leader colleagues was, if you’re looking at potential coordination between the campaign and Russia, the person at the head of the campaign is the candidate. So, logically, this person argued, the candidate’s knowledge, understanding, will logically become a part of your inquiry if it proceeds.”
As for those satellites, Comey implied that Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, may have more links to Russia than have already been established. Sessions announced his recusal from the investigation in March, under pressure from revelations of previously undisclosed meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
“Our judgment, as I recall, was that he was very close and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons,” Comey said. “We were also aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic.”
Sessions, already rumoured to be at odds with his boss, is due to appear at a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, and Democrats have said they will use it as an opportunity to grill him about Russian contacts.
Comey also told the hearing that he had explained to Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein, “my serious concern about the way in which the president is interacting, especially with the FBI”. Only days later, Rosenstein wrote a controversial memo providing Trump with reasons to fire Comey.
The former director gave Mueller another lead in his recollection of a dinner at the White House in January where Trump demanded his loyalty. “I could be wrong, but my common sense told me what’s going on here is that he’s looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job,” he said.
And intriguingly, Comey refused to answer a question about Vnesheconombank (Veb), a Russian government-owned development bank associated with Vladimir Putin. Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met last year with Veb executives.
Then there was a seemingly trivial but telling detail: Trump’s chronic incuriosity about Russia’s attack on American democracy. Comey could not recall the president asking about it but gave a dire, heartfelt warning of Moscow’s aggressive intentions. David Axelrod, former campaign manager for Barack Obama, tweeted: “Apart from obstruction issue, the most troubling aspect of Comey’s testimony was @POTUS evident lack of interest in Russian cyber attack.”
And with a sense of political theatre, Comey also dangled the Nixonian prospect of secret tape recordings for Mueller to go after. “I’ve seen the tweet about tapes,” he said. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
In all, Comey put down some tantalising dots for Mueller to join. But rightwing media were quick to make their own patterns. They contended that Trump is not under investigation, there is no obstruction of justice and there is still no proof of Russian collusion. They seized on Comey’s disclosure that he indirectly passed on his memos about private conversations to the media. Trump himself tweeted, “WOW, Comey is a leaker!” and his legal team began preparing a legal complaintagainst him.
It was a classic Trump tactic practised throughout his business career, throwing sand into the gears of his opponents to deflect and divert from his own troubles. Comey’s words were weaponised by both sides and that works to his advantage.
Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant and pollster, reflected: “It was worse than it needed to be [for Trump] but not as bad as it could have been. There’s a line in the Simon and Garfunkel song The Boxer: “A man hears what he wants to hear/ And disregards the rest.”
“If you’re a Trump fan, you think Comey broke the law by leaking documents. If you’re a Trump foe, you think there’s enough to impeach the president. There’s something here for everyone and that means everyone is hurt. It’s so bad for American democracy.”
Clearly, there is a long way to go and impeachment remains a remote prospect in a Republican controlled House. Lisa Kern Griffin, a law professor at Duke University, said: “It is an enormously complex investigation. A case of this type – even without the national security dimensions, the international financial evidence, and the context of electoral politics – would ordinarily take years for federal agents to investigate.
“There is some urgency to this, and no doubt the special counsel and his team will move as quickly as possible, but they also have to be especially careful. It will be months or even years before they reach any definitive conclusions.”