The big takeaway from Comey’s testimony is the awesome and arbitrary power of the president

Who’s the real strongman?
Who’s the real strongman?
Image: AP/Alex Brandon
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James Comey strode gallantly into Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, taking his seat as a witness before the Senate Intelligence Committee, every inch of his 6-foot-8 frame exuding confidence and resolve. “He’s extremely straight-faced,” the Guardian noted in its live blog. “Picture of a lawman.”

Within two hours, the former FBI director was reduced to testifying about being a little bit too weak.

His answers revealed an element of US president Donald Trump’s malfeasance that, if not illegal, might be even more damaging to democracy than a mere violation of law.

The telling moment came when Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein pressed Comey on his account of a Feb. 14 meeting at the White House, where Trump asked Comey about the FBI’s investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go,'” Trump told Comey, according to Comey’s recollection of the conversation.

Comey said he told Trump he agreed Flynn was “a good guy.” He did not, however, tell his boss that it was highly improper to even discuss the ongoing probe. He was, in fact, a bit scared.

From Politico’s transcript:

FEINSTEIN: Now, here’s the question, you’re big. You’re strong. I know the Oval Office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn’t you stop and say, “Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you.”

COMEY: It’s a great question. Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took in. The only thing I could think to say, because I was playing in my mind—because I could remember every word he said—I was playing in my mind, what should my response be? That’s why I carefully chose the words. Look, I’ve seen the tweet about tapes. Lordy, I hope there are tapes. I remember saying, “I agree he is a good guy,” as a way of saying, I’m not agreeing with what you asked me to do. Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance…I hope I’ll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I’d do it better.

“Stunned” is an understandable reaction to the words attributed to Trump. Comey was hearing something he had not heard from the mouth of any other president he had served under during a long career at the Justice Department. As FBI director, he had spoken with former president Barack Obama only twice in three years. With Trump, he had nine one-on-one conversations in the span of just a few months. Even before the Feb. 14 discussion, he had decided to keep detailed notes of all of them. “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting, so I thought it important to document,” he told the senators.

We’ll never know whether, given a second chance, Comey would have found the nerve to stand up to Trump’s attempts to sway him. And it remains debatable whether in saying he hoped Comey would “let this go,” Trump was interfering with the course of an investigation. From a purely legal standpoint, an “I hope” might not be treated in the same way as a direct order, as the president’s supporters have argued.

The question of what went wrong in that White House encounter is at heart not a legal one. What’s most insidious here is the president’s violation not of any law, but of norms—what we collectively define as acceptable behavior by those entrusted to lead.

No law stops the president from discussing a criminal investigation with the head of the FBI. No law stops him from ordering the end of an investigation, or from firing an FBI chief. As Comey himself said in his testimony, “As a legal matter, the president is the head of the executive branch…I think he has the legal authority.” However, as Comey also said, “we have important norms against this.”

Other norms, too, have been broken during this presidency. No law requires US presidents to release their tax returns, for example. It’s just that all of them, from Jimmy Carter on, did—until Trump, that is.

No law requires presidents to put major assets into blind trusts, which can avoid the appearance of any conflicts of interest. Men with lesser holdings than America’s wealthiest president found that was a good way to reduce suspicions. This president has a hotel with his name emblazoned on it, on property leased from the government (paywall) just down the block from the White House.

His daughter and son-in-law hold presidential appointments that require no legislative approval. Not illegal. Neither is the arrangement that saw Ivanka Trump transfer some of her assets to a trust overseen by her husband’s relatives (paywall). Still the air is thick with the smell of nepotism.

Less visible yet no less significant is the legal power that Trump has failed to wield. He fired every US attorney appointed by Obama, but has yet to nominate a single replacement (so much for carrying out the new War on Drugs). Trump also bucked tradition and booted all of Obama’s ambassadors, but has appointed only 11 to fill dozens of openings. This makes for a greatly weakened executive branch and State Department.

The echoes of the dissonance Trump has orchestrated now rattle Washington, and the world, in striking ways.

Like Comey in the Oval Office, viewers watching the former FBI director’s testimony encountered words they had not expected to hear about any president in quite this context. At one point in the hearing, Comey and the junior senator from Maine simultaneously called to mind the story of the 12th-century murder of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury.

“When a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like, ‘I hope or I suggest or would you,’ do you take that as a directive?” Angus King asked Comey.

“Yes. It rings in my ear as, well, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?'”

“I was just going to quote that…Henry II said, ‘Who will rid me of the meddlesome priest?’ And the next day, he was killed,” the Maine senator said.

Slain in the cathedral by Henry’s knights, who had overheard their king’s complaint, the martyred Becket became a saint of two churches. Testifying on live TV, Comey told us he believed that discretion is the better part of valor.

He has lived to tell.