The testimony that could destroy a president
Yesterday James Comey, the former head of the FBI, made damning allegations under oath against President Trump. Some say Trump may lose his job for obstructing justice. How serious is this?
On January 20th, Donald Trump became the president of the United States. He and the FBI director, James Comey, seemed to be on good terms. Some even thought Comey had helped to sway last year’s election in Trump’s favour.
But trouble was brewing. Comey’s agency was investigating the Russian government’s interference in the election campaign. Their work implicated senior officials who had worked for Trump. Last month, Trump abruptly sacked Comey.
And yesterday Comey had a chance to tell his story, as he testified in front of the Senate intelligence committee. His appearance was eagerly anticipated and his revelations were significant.
Comey said the president’s demands made him “uneasy” about the FBI’s independence. He said Trump demanded “loyalty”. He referred to unexpected phone calls and frequent, tense meetings.
At one meeting in February, Comey said, Trump ordered everyone else to leave the room. The president then told him: “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.”
That referred to Mike Flynn, a close aide of Trump’s who was being investigated by the FBI over alleged collusion with Russia.
Comey said that he viewed the words as an order and noted them down as he thought they may be investigated. And the following month, the president asked him to “lift the cloud” that the Russia investigation was casting over his administration.
Perhaps the most damning evidence came when Comey said he had “no doubt” he was sacked “because of the Russia investigation”. He added that Trump spread “lies” about his leadership to justify the decision.
If Trump misused his position to block an investigation, it could cost him his job. Last night the odds on him being impeached were shortened.
Yesterday Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator, said “the odour of presidential abuse of power is so strong”. But Trump’s lawyer said the president felt “vindicated”.
The pressure mounts
This is very serious, say some. Trump’s requests to “let Flynn go” and “lift the cloud” were unjustifiable, thinly-veiled threats. Comey reasonably thought the most powerful person in the world was ordering him to drop an investigation. The president then sacked Comey when he refused to do so. There is a serious prospect of Trump being removed from office over this.
An overreaction, others respond. The case against Trump is vague — the phrase “I hope,” for example, does not imply coercion. Comey’s interpretation of Trump’s actions is speculative. And the president was entitled to sack the FBI director. Trump’s behaviour is being over-analysed because his opponents are desperate to find a way of getting rid of him.
- Would you trust yourself to judge a president fairly?
- Is President Trump’s job under threat?
- Work in pairs. Write a list of five questions you would like to ask about this story. Then choose your best question and explain why you find it interesting to your class.
- Write a one-page memo explaining what we know about Trump’s relationship with Comey. Make sure someone three years younger than you could understand it.
Some People Say...
“Stories about corrupt leaders are never as salacious as they seem.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Comey says he has “no doubt” that Russia tried to interfere with last year’s election. But otherwise we do not know much: there is an ongoing investigation into whether evidence was covered up. Comey’s testimony is just part of that. The next step will see Bob Mueller, the special counsel investigating the affair, meet senators next week.
- What do we not know?
- There are many unanswered questions. The most significant is what President Trump meant when he said “I hope you can let this go”. We do not know whether there are tapes of the conversations between Trump and Comey — the president mentioned tapes in a recent tweet. There are questions around the role of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney-general. And we do not know whether Trump is now personally under investigation.
- The Federal Bureau of Investigations, a law enforcement and intelligence agency.
- Days before election day, Comey said publicly that he was re-opening an investigation into Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent.
- Comey spoke to Trump nine times in just four months. When President Obama was in power, he spoke to him twice in four years.
- He was sacked as Trump’s national security adviser in February.
- He said it reminded him of Henry II’s famous remark: “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Soon after Henry said this Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was killed. This suggests that Trump gave an order but spoke ambiguously to evade responsibility.
- Trump said the investigation was hindering his administration’s ability to do its job.
- Trump said he sacked Comey because he mishandled last year’s investigation into Clinton. But Trump praised Comey’s decisions over the Clinton investigation at the time.
- Charged with an offence by the House of Representatives. If convicted by the Senate, he would be removed as president.