Impeachment: Comey’s Case

Thursday, June 8th, former FBI Director James Comey testified in front of a politically diverse panel of congressmen as to the nature of conversations which took place between himself and President Trump. The conversations pertained to the ongoing investigation of former Director of National Security, Michael Flynn, and his undisclosed connections with foreign entities. The now ousted Flynn was let go amid scandal and outrage: having failed to disclose payments he received from Turkey for work done as a private consultant, in addition to contacts he had with Russian actors during the campaign itself, Flynn was asked by the president to resign just 24 days into his term of service. An investigation conducted by the FBI was opened into Flynn’s misconduct, which in turn put the Trump administration in the hot-seat after repeated denials of any contact between President Trump, his aides, or his campaign advisors, and Russian-backed entities.

Per Director Comey, sometime in March of 2017 the president tacitly requested that the investigation be dropped due to the fact that it was impeding his ability to push through other imperatives of the administration; a “cloud” of public scrutiny and rumor had descended upon the administration which created undue friction between the White House and other members of government. When Director Comey refused to drop the investigation, he was promptly fired by the President. The exact nature and content of the conversations which took place between the former Director and the President have obvious implications for the impeachment process and the viability of the administration as a whole: does the president’s request amount to obstruction of an active investigation into Flynn’s nefarious conduct, or is this another instance of minor divergence from pro-forma behavior by the president?

 

How Did We Get Here?

 

Appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013, James Comey likely never intended to take the spotlight. He was, rather, hurled into the public consciousness during the 2016 presidential election when he testified to Congress as to the results of the active investigation into then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s unsecured email servers. As FBI director, Comey was responsible for leading the investigation into Clinton’s server, but it was only after June 29th, 2016 – when Bill Clinton boarded then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s private plane and conducted an unsupervised conversation – that the FBI Director was burdened the responsibility of presenting the information to congress and the public. Despite the fact that Lynch claimed the conversation between her and Bill Clinton pertained exclusively to social matters, both democrats and republicans believed that a conflict of interest had emerged. Although Lynn did not officially recuse herself from the investigation, she stated that she would remove herself from all conduct related to the Clinton email probe; Comey was left to pick up the pieces.

In May of 2016, Comey was brought in front of a panel of congressman to testify on the nature of Hilary Clinton’s private email servers, and the potential ramifications of her having kept classified documents on those private servers. What he revealed was damning, but ultimately no charges were brought against Hilary Clinton for “carelessness” in maintaining the security of classified documents. One can be sure that Comey, along with the rest of the nation, believed the he would transition back into his former role of lead investigator when the probe concluded. However, in January of 2017 the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) published a document which elucidated the scope and significance of state-sponsored interference in the 2016 presidential election by clandestine elements within the Russia. Alongside this document, it was announced that the FBI had been conducting investigations as early as March of 2016 into several American citizens who were believed to have been in contact with Russian elements. This investigation was prompted by the release of documents owned by the Democratic National Committee which had been acquired illegally and disseminated through the infamous WikiLeaks.

ODNI’s document was, however, much broader in scope. They concluded that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” which intended to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” and “help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”[1] Prompted by the release of this document, a congressional inquiry was subsequently opened, at which Comey testified at great length to the scope of Russian involvement. It was here that members of President Trump’s campaign were implicated in the Russian interference scandal.

Although Comey did not specify any individual Americans, the congressional representatives were less hesitant. Amongst those named were Paul Manafort (a political consultant with Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly),  Carter Page (an oil industry consultant who was named as a member of Trump’s foreign policy team during the 2016 campaign), and Michael Flynn, all of whom contributed significantly to Trump’s campaign style and process.

During the inquiry, Representative Adam Schiff (CA-D) posited a timeline of events. Per Schiff, the Steele dossier (drafted by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele) strongly indicated that Paul Manafort was responsible for approving Carter Page’s meeting with Russian actors during a trip to Moscow in July of 2016.[2] It was during this meeting between Page and Russian representatives that a bargain was struck wherein the Trump campaign would receive “documents damaging to Hillary Clinton which the Russians would publish through an outlet that gives them deniability like WikiLeaks,” in exchange for “a Trump administration policy that de-emphasizes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and instead focuses on criticizing NATO countries for not paying their fair share.”[3]

Schiff also named Michael Flynn in the inquiry, stating that he was involved in “a secret conversation with [Russian] Ambassador Kislyak, about sanctions imposed by President Obama on Russia over attacking designed to help the Trump campaign.” Assured by Flynn that such a conversation never occurred, Vice President Pence assures “the country that… no such conversation ever happened.” Despite this assurance, “the president is informed that Flynn has lied and Pence has misled the country…” and two weeks later, “the press reveals that Flynn has lied and the president is forced to fire Mr. Flynn.”[4] Although Comey was unwilling to discuss any individuals or any active investigations, Michael Flynn was repeatedly addressed throughout the investigation as a person of interest who had questionable ties to Russia during and after the 2016 campaign season.

 

The Meetings

 

Michael Flynn was perhaps the most high-profile member of the congressional inquiry due to his removal by the president only a few weeks after taking the position. When it was thusly revealed that President Trump conducted a private conversation with then-Director James Comey – wherein the investigation into Michael Flynn was addressed – it was naturally a hot-button issue in the press and beyond. According to former Director Comey’s testimony in June 8th, during a meeting of president Trump’s staff in the oval office on February 14th, the president requested to speak with Comey in private. Memos maintained by the former Director that were read aloud to reporters from The New York Times highlighted that it was during this conversation that president Trump stated, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”[5] Despite this request the investigation of Flynn’s misconduct continued – a decision which had serious consequences for Comey.

On May 9th, 2017, then-Director Comey was fired from his appointed position. In the dismissal letter, president Trump stated that he agreed with “the judgement of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau. It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores confidence in its vital law enforcement mission.”[6] Comey’s position was never guaranteed, and any sitting president reserves the right to dismiss the director of the FBI without cause. Of critical importance, however, was the subsequent commentary from president Trump provided to NBC news on the issue. In a video interview with Lester Holt, Trump stated “…and in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won’.”[7]

What could the president have meant when he asked the former Director to “let Flynn go”? In Comey’s June 8th testimony to congress Comey stated, “I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct… that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work towards, to try and understand what the intention was there, and whether that’s an offense.”[8] In the minds of both Democrats on the panel and the majority of Americans, the statement is tantamount to a request to drop an active investigation which may have implicated the president or his closest advisors in colluding with a foreign actor in order to win the 2016 election. This conclusion was only reinforced by president Trump’s subsequent statements to Lester Holt, wherein it was clearly articulated that “this Russia thing” was a pertinent issue in his decision to relieve then-Director Comey of his responsibilities. This fact was reiterated on June 8th when Senator Richard Burr (CA-R) asked, “is it possible that, as part of this FBI investigation, the FBI could find evidence of criminality that is not tied to — to the 2016 elections — possible collusion or coordination with Russians?” Comey’s response was succinct: “sure.”[9]

 

What Are the Implications for Impeachment?

If Senator Burr’s and former-Director Comey’s testimony can be taken at face value, then there is reason to believe that president Trump, by having requested Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn without any supervision from other members of staff, may have obstructed justice. Although, as the former-Director noted, the intent of President Trump’s statement is of critical importance in this matter, there can be no doubt that the claims of obstructing justice are plausible and merit further investigation. Obstruction of justice is no small claim either, with only two significant accusations having been brought against significant members of government: Richard M Nixon, and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby in 1972 and 2007 respectively. Such a claim is a sufficient crime to set-in-motion the impeachment process against a president, and if proven could very well result in the removal of an individual from office, alongside other penalties.

At this juncture, it is difficult to speculate on the likeliness of president Trump’s culpability in the matter. Although the implication made in the president’s statements in both Comey’s dismissal letter and his interview with Lester Holt – more specifically, the implication that Comey’s commitment to the investigation into Flynn and the difficult that commitment caused the Trump administration were the reason for his dismissal – would leave one to believe that he has something to hide. No less, Trump’s decision to excuse all members of the staff meeting held on February 14th, 2017 implies that the nature of the conversation between himself and Comey was potentially implicating, and was thus worth hiding. At the time of this publication, however, Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified to a congressional inquiry as to the content of Comey’s June 8th statements, seeking to clarify statements made by Comey and absolve the president of wrongdoing. Although his statements were largely insignificant – due primarily to the fact that he refused to respond to a large portion of the questions – the fact that there exists a tension between the administration’s presentation of events and those of the former-Director of the FBI, it is likely that investigations into the firing of James Comey will continue. Hopefully, such investigations will absolve the president of any wrong-doing and restore confidence to the nation in the electoral process.

It is crucial to remind readers that impeachment is never a desirable outcome. Even when the president conducts himself in a questionable manner, makes questionable decisions both domestically and international, or otherwise pursues policies which are antithetical to any given individual’s personal convictions, impeachment is a historically significant act that would further the interests of other states including Russia. Indeed, if the intent of the interference in the 2016 election was not in fact to place into office a specific candidate but, rather, to undermine the nation’s confidence in liberal-democratic institutions, no act could be more damaging than the act of impeachment.
[1] United States of America, Intelligence Community Assessment, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections, ii

[2] Washington Post Staff, “Read the full testimony of FBI Director James Comey in which he discusses Clinton email investigation,” The Washington Post, May 03, 2017, , accessed June 13, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2017/05/03/read-the-full-testimony-of-fbi-director-james-comey-in-which-he-discusses-clinton-email-investigation/?utm_term=.c43b29d4138e.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] “Full Transcript and Video: James Comey’s Testimony on Capitol Hill,” The New York Times, June 08, 2017, , accessed June 13, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/08/us/politics/senate-hearing-transcript.html?mcubz=0.

[6] “Trump’s letter firing FBI Director James Comey,” CNN, May 10, 2017, , accessed June 13, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/09/politics/fbi-james-comey-fired-letter/.

[7] James Griffiths, “Trump says he considered ‘this Russia thing’ when firing FBI Director Comey,” CNN, May 12, 2017, , accessed June 13, 2017, http://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/12/politics/trump-comey-russia-thing/index.html.

 

[8] “Full Transcript and Video: James Comey’s Testimony on Capitol Hill,” The New York Times, June 08, 2017, , accessed June 13, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/08/us/politics/senate-hearing-transcript.html?mcubz=0.

[9] Ibid

Featured image from Red State (www.redstate.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/TrumpShrug3.jpg)

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