In his June 7 testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, fired FBI Director James Comey dropped no new bombshells. Instead, he darkened some of the clouds surrounding the question of Russian interference in last fall’s U.S. presidential election. And his testimony that President Donald Trump attempted to quash an investigation into deposed national security advisor Michael Flynn emboldened those seeking a thorough investigation into the Trump campaign team’s contact with the Russians.
Although some partisan pundits disagree, it does not appear that Comey described clear criminal actions by Trump. But the testimony did describe troublesome meddling. By making clear that he wanted the investigation of Flynn to go away, rather than ordering Comey to shut it down, the president may have avoided grounds for a criminal charge of obstruction of justice, even though Comey said that he understood the president’s words to be an order.
Comey reported that he took close notes of his meetings with Trump. To protect himself in case of a war of “he said-he said” with the president, and to prompt the call for the appointment of a special counsel, Comey asked a friend to leak a memo about the meeting in which the president allegedly asked him to drop the Flynn investigation. That was red meat for Trump’s private lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, who called for an investigation into Comey’s leak.
Predictably, Republicans searched for arguments to support the president. Some were effective; others struggled. For example, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin offered a defense that was both pathetic and true: “The president’s new at this. He’s new at government,” Ryan said. While that explanation may work to excuse a misstep by an office intern, it just doesn’t wash when it comes to the president of the United States.
And therein lies the problem. All presidents are “new at the job” when they begin their terms. But every past president in our lifetimes has given the impression that he respects the office and is humbled by the seriousness of responsibility that has been entrusted to him by the American people, and appeared to seek to surround himself with experienced personnel who could help navigate difficult times. Some were successful; others not. But never before have we seen a president who is so openly self-absorbed and thin-skinned. Nor have we ever been exposed so intimately to the hourly thinking and actions of our president, in his own words. These exposures raise serious questions about the president’s temperament and suitability for the job.
Although they may be the result of “rookie mistakes,” the five-month-old Trump administration has stumbled into one self-made difficulty after another, while the people’s business waits. Even if the president has not broken any laws, many of his actions have the whiff of abuse of power.
Congress will have to sort that out.