Donald Trump’s White House had feared the worst from former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony — the revelation of what one close associate called a “salacious bomb” that would send the investigations off into entirely new, and entirely unpredictable, directions. It never came, as Comey mostly hewed to previously reported details. But calmly, carefully, Comey actually might have done something just as dangerous.
By neither exonerating nor convicting the president, Comey laid down during his Thursday appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee a road map of questions for special counsel Robert Mueller to follow about Trump’s conduct, a path it could take Mueller months, even years, to follow. At the same time, the head of the panel said its investigation is just getting started, and a second committee may summon Comey to testify.
While Republicans hope to move past Comey’s revelations and get back to their agenda, having a president under a “cloud” — Trump’s word — with tarnished credibility, diminished political standing and distractions galore won’t do anything to bring his health care, tax or infrastructure proposals to the finish line. “Everything is consumed with these battles and fights that are not directly part of the legislative process,” said Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma.
Behind the scenes, Republicans did make some progress this week in their closed-door talks about Obamacare repeal as they try to hammer out changes to the House-passed health-care bill. But they are still short of the 50 votes needed to pass the measure in the Senate and would need to get the House to approve it as well.
This time around, though, they won’t be able to rely as much on a damaged Trump — who was deeply involved in the push to get the earlier bill through the House — to help secure the crucial final votes.
The distractions also appear to be slowing Trump’s ambitions for big tax cuts. Even though the president has claimed his tax bill is moving forward in Congress, there is no bill, nor a basic agreement on the structure of any tax changes. Republican leaders are waiting to hear from the White House on the details of its plan, which senior aides have signaled may not come until September at the earliest.
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Trump tried to use the week to push his third big agenda item — infrastructure — but has made little progress there. Lawmakers in both parties immediately dismissed his newly announced proposal to privatize air traffic control, while Democrats accused him of missing an opportunity for a bold bipartisan package.
Trump broke his silence on the testimony Friday morning by tweeting a claim of “complete vindication” and trying to turn the table on Comey, who acknowledged during the hearing that he gave one of his memos about a conversation with Trump to a friend for the express purpose of leaking it to the media — in that case, the New York Times.
“Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication…and WOW, Comey is a leaker!” Trump tweeted.
Allies of the president, including his attorney, Marc Kasowitz, echoed the argument that the testimony was vindication — evidence the president never explicitly asked to end the investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, and that the criminal inquiry had not extended into an examination of Trump himself. They painted Comey as part of a swath of government bureaucrats attempting to undermine the president, noting the director admitted to orchestrating a news leak following his dismissal of details of his private conversations with Trump.
The ousted FBI chief confirmed that the president wasn’t under investigation when he left the job. Comey also deflected questions of whether Trump obstructed justice by asking to drop an investigation of fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, saying that was a matter for Mueller to decide.
But the president’s attorney refused to take questions, and did little to refute the detailed account provided by the former FBI director – or explain apparent contradictions with the president’s own public statements.
Comey’s testimony raised new questions for FBI and congressional investigators probing Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The career law enforcement official, fielding questions over a span of nearly three hours, plainly and systematically painted a portrait of a president so untrustworthy that he felt the need to document every conversation in a memo.
He also described, in his prepared remarks, how Trump spoke repeatedly of “a cloud” over his presidency stemming from the Russia investigations. “He said he had nothing to do with Russia,” Comey said. “He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud.”’
Among the greatest concerns for the White House following Thursday’s testimony were new indications that the size and scope of the Russia investigation could be growing.
Although Trump wasn’t under personal scrutiny when he fired Comey on May 9, he may now be drawing attention from Mueller for potentially obstructing justice. Comey said he was certain Mueller would work toward understanding the intention of the president’s effort to intervene on Flynn’s behalf, “and whether that’s an offense.”
The former FBI director also provided a blueprint of other Trump associates who are likely to join Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former campaign adviser Roger Stone, and son-in-law Jared Kushner under FBI scrutiny.
For example, Comey said Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in the Oval Office with him on Feb. 14 when Trump asked everybody except Comey to leave the room. Comey said Sessions lingered as if he knew something was wrong before leaving.
Comey also indicated there was another reason why he didn’t tell Sessions that Trump had asked him to let go of the Flynn investigation. But Comey stopped short of explaining the reason.
Sessions could face public questions on his actions as soon as next Tuesday, when he is scheduled to give testimony at a congressional hearing on the Justice Department budget.
Sessions has recused himself from the Russia investigations, ceding that responsibility to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who named Mueller last month to oversee the Russia probes. After reports Trump was frustrated with Sessions and the attorney general offered to resign, a White House spokesman offered public backing for Sessions Thursday.
Comey said he informed other top Justice Department and FBI officials of what Trump said in their one-on-one conversations. That list includes then acting attorney general Dana Boente and Andrew McCabe, who is now acting FBI director.
“I believe the evidence keeps piling up that there has been very real presidential abuse of power,” said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who questioned Comey on Thursday.
Comey’s testimony also provided fodder for tough questions in confirmation hearings ahead for former Justice Department official Christopher A. Wray, who Trumped pick to be the next FBI director a day earlier. One of those questions is sure to be whether Trump sought Wray’s personal loyalty in offering him the position.
According to his prepared remarks, Comey detailed one encounter over dinner at the White House in January, when Trump told the nation’s top law enforcement officer, “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.” Comey said an awkward silence followed. When Trump returned to the issue of loyalty later in the meal, Comey said he could offer “honesty.” Kasowitz said Trump never made such a request.
Other senators on the intelligence committee said after Comey’s testimony they were already gearing up to question additional witnesses to testify and hold more hearings, including calling Sessions testify.
“Our job is to gather information and we’ll let the American people determine what they think,” Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, told reporters after the hearing.
Burr said he plans to call Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Michael Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, to testify in a closed session, probably next week. Coats and Rogers refused to publicly answer questions from committee members on Wednesday about whether Trump asked them to lean on Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn.
The president’s allies sought to argue that while the president’s behavior might have violated the cultural norms of official Washington, they were merely the missteps of a passionate novice – not a criminal conspiracy to hide unproven collusion between his campaign and Russia.
“If being crude, rude and a bull in a china shop was a crime, Trump would get the death penalty,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said. “It’s not.”