James Comey called the president’s bluff. Jeff Sessions didn’t. Our guess? Robert Mueller, like Comey, won’t take the bait, either. And that’s how it should be.
In an interview with Fox News aired last week, President Trump couldn’t congratulate himself enough for his efforts to rattle Comey, the FBI director whom the president fired when he politely refused to back off of the investigation into ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn’s ties with Russia.
Leading up to Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, the president implied that he might have tapes — how 1970s! — of closed-door conversations between the two of them. Last week, Trump tweeted that he “did not make, and do not have, any such recordings,” taking a swipe at President Obama, of course, blaming his administration for “doing all of this unmasking and surveillance.”
Trump said that the threat of having tapes forced Comey to tell the truth and say under oath that the president was not under investigation, a claim he wisely refused to make publicly as FBI director.
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But Trump fails to realize that when the man he was trying to spook said, again under oath, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes!“ it takes the wind out of the threat. After all, Comey also made clear that he would dash from those fraught encounters and write down what had just transpired. Clearly, this is a man who wanted everything on the record — just in case.
On the other hand, Attorney General Sessions was more compliant on behalf of the president when he testified before the Senate committee, possibly because Trump made clear his displeasure that Sessions recused himself from any role in the Russian probe because of his own questionable ties. Sessions even offered to resign. Instead, he was the good soldier.
Now, the president is working hard to cast doubt on another former FBI director, Robert Mueller, saying last week that the special counsel who is leading the Flynn investigation has a “very bothersome” friendship with Comey. Both served as FBI chiefs, so they are at the very least acquainted. But Trump is implying that Mueller already is biased.
Does he have a point?
Indeed, it’s a concern anyone under fire would make. But it would have far more legitimacy if Trump had not already been fighting tooth and nail to derail any Russia probe. His history here is far more bothersome than that of Mueller, a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush, and leaving office when his term ended in Obama’s second term.
In another realm, what Trump is doing could be seen as an attempt to intimidate witnesses; to, perhaps, obstruct justice — an allegation Trump is desperately trying to shake. But his unpresidential attempts to distract from, to undercut the integrity of, the Russia investigation create far more doubt about his protestations. They clarify nothing.
That said, Trump has found muddying the waters has worked to his advantage before.
The president should take his job, and his vaunted position, as seriously as those who are charged with making sure that the foundation of this democracy is not further eroded. We are not teetering on the brink of a constitutional crisis quite yet. But those clouds are drifting closer than they have in decades.
President Trump seems to be blowing an awful lot of smoke. Obviously, he’s concerned that there’s fire.