WASHINGTON — In riveting testimony where he was not significantly challenged, former FBI Director James Comey on Thursday never directly accused President Donald Trump of obstructing justice as he detailed unsubtle pressure from Trump to derail the Russian investigation.
The main legal and political damage for Trump, stemming from Comey’s testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is this: Comey said Trump tried to influence the independent FBI director to drop an ongoing investigation. If true, that is a scandal — but not necessarily an impeachable offense.
Whether Trump’s actions ultimately amount to obstruction of justice is for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to determine, Comey said, careful not to draw that conclusion himself.
Let’s break it down:
WHAT WE STILL DON’T KNOW
The hearing never revealed whether Trump had, as he hinted in a May 12 Twitter post, a secret recording system that would render moot Comey’s nine memos-to-self about his private conversations with Trump and even much of his testimony about his recollections of the calls and meetings.
TRUMP STILL IN DANGER
After the hearing, Trump’s personal attorney, Marc Kasowitz, said Trump was vindicated because Comey “confirmed publicly” the president was not under investigation as part of any Russian election interference probe.
But that’s as of May 9, when Comey was fired. Mueller and congressional committees are still in early stages of sprawling investigations.
Comey’s testimony is dangerous personally for Trump because he left open the potential of obstruction on the president’s part.
And investigations of Trump associates’ dealings with Russia — including, of course, Flynn and son-in-law Jared Kushner, could stain or cripple the Trump presidency.
COMEY TOOK TRUMP SERIOUSLY
Comey said Trump suggested in so many words that he end the Flynn FBI probe. Comey said he got the hint.
Comey said he took Trump’s words “as a direction. It is the president of the United States with me alone, saying, ‘I hope this.’ I took it as ‘this is what he wants me to do.’ I didn’t obey it, but that’s the way I took it.”
THE ASTOUNDING NEWS: COMEY IS A LEAKER
In the most stunning revelation of the hearing, Comey said he leaked the memos he wrote about his private conversations with Trump to a reporter — using a friend as a go-between — in order to trigger the appointment of a special counsel.
Comey said he wanted his version out after Trump, who fired Comey on May 9, said in a May 12 Twitter post that Comey had better hope there are no tapes.
“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey told the senators.
The admission that Comey made sure his memos documenting the conversations were leaked came during questioning from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Kudos to Collins getting the disclosure by the question she put to Comey simply and directly: “Did you show copies of your memos to anyone outside the Department of Justice?”
Comey went on to explain, “It didn’t dawn on me originally, that there might be corroboration for our conversation, there might be a tape,” Comey said.
“And my judgment was, I needed to get that out into the public square, so I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with the reporter. I didn’t do it myself for a variety of reasons, but I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. So I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
The friend is Columbia Law School Professor Daniel Richman.
Richman confirmed in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times that he was the source. “Yes it was me. Sorry but Nothing further,” Richman wrote.
COMEY PLAYING THE D.C. INSIDER POLITICAL GAME
Comey was thinking steps ahead once Trump started to pressure him on Flynn. He started documenting his conversations — something he never did with former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush — and crafted them deliberately with no classified information in them so the memos could be released or leaked.
Comey wrote his CYA memos-to-self because he didn’t trust Trump. “I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document,” he said.
RUSSIA, RUSSIA, RUSSIA
Trump and associates on May 9 said Comey had to be fired because of his performance, defaming “lies, plain and simple,” Comey said. He did make a case that Trump somehow thought Comey’s removal would “change the way” the Russia probe was being conducted.
Said Comey, that is “a very big deal.”