Comey's Testimony Puts the President's Character on Trial

Comey's Testimony Puts the President's Character on Trial
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It boils down to the “nature of the person”. James Comey’s testimony that he took notes of his talks with Donald Trump because he did not trust the president’s honesty is now the hinge of the inquiry. It is Mr Comey’s word against Mr Trump’s. Whose nature do you trust?

Mr Trump’s allies, who include some Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee, will seek to throw doubt on Mr Comey’s honesty. They also include Mr Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr, who seemed to be the First Family’s designated live tweeter during Mr Comey’s testimony. Mr Comey looks set to face one of the most feral character assassinations in modern times.

Many others seem willing to take the former Federal Bureau of Investigation director at his word. “I was honestly concerned that he might lie,” Mr Comey said of why he took contemporaneous notes of his conversations with Mr Trump — something that had not crossed his mind with Barack Obama or George W Bush. “It was a gut feeling . . . on my read of that person,” he said.

Where does it go from here? For a few dramatic hours on Thursday, it was almost easy to forget that the fuse was originally lit in Moscow over the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russian interference in the US election. Now, in classic Washington fashion, the story is about the cover up. The first article of Richard Nixon’s impeachment was obstruction of justice — not about the original crime committed in the Watergate burglary. Whether Mr Trump knowingly colluded with Russia is a secondary matter. It is about whether the US president deliberately tried to derail the course of justice.

The next question is whether Mr Comey can corroborate his accounts of his nine conversations with Mr Trump, which is seven more than he had with Mr Obama in several years. Matters would become very simple had the president indeed recorded the calls, as Mr Trump hinted on Twitter shortly after he fired Mr Comey last month. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” said Mr Comey on Thursday. It was the revelation that there were Oval Office tapes that finished off Nixon.

But history rarely repeats itself. In the absence of recordings, Mr Comey can point to the presence of several senior FBI officials when he received a phone call from Mr Trump asking him to “lift the cloud” on the Russia investigation. They will undoubtedly become part of the inquiry.

Then there is the probe led by Robert Mueller, the former FBI director, whom Mr Comey confirmed was also looking into obstruction of justice. Mr Mueller, whom Mr Comey described as “one of the finest public servants America has ever produced”, is the type of law officer who would indict his mother if he caught her breaking the law, according to those who know him well. He would “leave no stone unturned”, said Mr Comey.

There were four conclusions to draw from Mr Comey’s testimony. First, the Republican defence is still holding — though most were fairly halfhearted in their attempts to discredit Mr Comey’s veracity. That will be the White House line of attack.

Second, Mr Mueller’s inquiry will continue to gather pace. He has already leaked that a senior White House official is a “person of interest”, almost certainly Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law. Those wheels will continue to grind.

Third, there will be a lot of leaks and confusion in the days ahead. To paraphrase Mr Comey: those who don’t know, talk — those who do know, don’t talk.

Finally, it will be very hard for Mr Trump to focus on anything else from now on. The chances of any legislative action are plummeting by the day. This week was supposed to be Mr Trump’s “infrastructure week”. Few will remember it. Every week now is about the nature of the president’s character.

edward.luce@ft.com. This article orginally appeared in the Financial Times and is reprinted with permission. 

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