Sullivan on Comey’s Testimony
Andrew Sullivan spells out what James Comey’s testimony tells us about Donald Trump in New York Magazine.
And there was a lovely resonance, don’t you think, that this shocking reversal for right-populism came on the very same day that President Trump was definitively shown to be more than worthy of impeachment. I’ve long been a skeptic of some of the darkest claims about his campaign’s alleged involvement with the Russian government — and possible evidence thereof — but I’m not skeptical at all of the idea that he has clearly committed a categorical abuse of his presidential power in his attempt to cover it up.
This sobering reality was not advanced by the Comey hearings yesterday, riveting though they were. We have long known that Trump colluded with the Russian government to tilt the election against his opponent — because he did so on national television during the campaign, urging the Kremlin to release more hacked Clinton emails to help him win. We also know that he fired FBI Director James Comey in order to remove the cloud of the Russian investigation from his presidency — because Trump said so on national television himself and then boasted about it to two close Putin lackeys in the Oval Office!
But the details to buttress this picture add weight and texture to all of it. Comey credibly asserted that the president asked for personal loyalty to him, and not to the Constitution; that Trump sought leverage over Comey in a highly inappropriate private dinner for two; that he cleared the Oval Office of everyone else so that he could ask Comey alone to drop the inquiry into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia; that when Comey refused to obey, the president fired him; that when asked why he fired him, the president openly cited the investigation into Russia; and that he then brazenly threatened the FBI director if he spoke the truth about their interactions in hearings or the press.
What else do we really need to know?
Or look at it this way: We now have a witness of long public service, clear integrity, with contemporaneous memoranda and witnesses, who just testified under oath to the president’s clear attempt to obstruct justice. Any other president of any party who had been found guilty of these things would be impeached under any other circumstances. Lying under oath about sexual misconduct is trivial in comparison. So, for that matter, is covering up a domestic crime. Watergate did not, after all, involve covering up the attempt of the Kremlin to undermine and corrode the very core of our democratic system — free and fair elections. Even conservative commentators have conceded that if this were a Democrat in power, almighty hell would have already been unleashed. We wouldn’t be mulling impeachment. It would already be well under way.
The “defenses” of the president are telling. Republican senators were attempting to parse the words “I hope” yesterday in a manner that made Trump’s aspiration to get Flynn off seem like an innocent musing directed at no one in particular — when it was directed alone in private to the man running that investigation. Please.
The Speaker of the House then tried this one on: “The president’s new at this. He’s new to government and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI, and White Houses. He’s just new to this.” Excuse me? Someone who assumes the office of the presidency without knowing that we live under the rule of law, and who believes that the president can rig the legal and investigative system to his own benefit, has no business being president at all. This should not be part of some learning curve. Not knowing this basic fact about our constitutional democracy — something taught in every high school — is ipso facto disqualifying. If the president doesn’t know this, he doesn’t know anything. And if he can violate this clear, bright line, he can violate anything.
What chills me even more is how Comey of all people was clearly intimidated. He didn’t threaten to resign; he didn’t immediately cry fowl; he appealed only to Sessions, who rolled his eyes. This “cowardice” — to use Comey’s own term — is from a man who stood up to a previous president under great duress in the emergency of wartime. Imagine how many other functionaries, less established and far weaker and less pliable than Comey, will acquiesce to abuse of this kind, if it is ignored, enabled, or allowed to continue.
And yet Trump remains in office, hoping that our outrage will somehow be dimmed by his shameless relentlessness and constant distractions. In classic Roy Cohn fashion, he is now, through his thuggish lawyer, calling for an investigation into (yes) Comey for his leak of his (unclassified) memoranda as a private citizen. He will say or do anything — and yes, lie through his teeth repeatedly — to obscure the reality in front of our eyes. But we need to be clear about something. If we let an abuse of power of this magnitude go unchallenged, we have begun the formal task of dismantling our system of government. This is not a legal matter — dependent on whether you can convict someone of a specific crime. This is a political matter — and of the gravest kind — about whether we wish to sustain our liberal democratic norms.
Do we Americans have sufficient integrity to do this, and to reverse the drastic error we all so recently made? Maybe the British have just showed us that, yes, we can.
Cross-posted from The Sensible Center
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