Key Takeaways from the Comey Senate Testimony

The Comey Senate hearing has finally come and gone. And from a quick look at the media headlines covering the story, it appears just about everyone got what they were hoping for–namely more support for whatever conclusion they previously held.

Here’s a quick round-up of the leading stories from last night:

Washington Post: Comey: White House lied about me, FBI

New York Times: Comey Bluntly Raises Possibility of Trump Obstruction and Condemns His ‘Lies’

Reuters: Comey says Trump fired him to undermine Russia investigation

CNN: Comey came ready to unleash on Trump (this was the initial splash headline before UK election coverage displaced it)

MSNBC: Comey testimony fortifies Trump obstruction case

Fox News: Comey exonerates Trump — so much for obstruction

So in other words, it’s about what you’d expect. The major media outlets that have generally criticized Trump emphasized the most inflammatory aspects of Comey’s testimony. And, Fox, which tends to be sympathetic to the Republicans, emphasized the aspects of the hearing that were favorable to Trump.

Reading those headlines, one might almost think these reporters are just cherry-picking quotes to support their position. And indeed, that’s largely what happened.

But having said that, we actually did get a surprising amount of useful information and direct answers from the Comey hearing. And since we have the transcript, we don’t need to rely on the objective summaries of WaPo or Fox. I’ve summarized some of the most important takeaways below:

Comey did say Trump lied, but it wasn’t about anything important

As we saw above, many news outlets ran with the quote where Comey described Trump’s statements as “lies”. He really does say this, and it happens in his opening remarks.

But context matters. Comey said Trump was lying about his reasons for firing Comey–specifically saying that the FBI was in disarray, poorly led, etc. In other words, Comey said that Trump’s disparaging remarks about Comey himself were lies. Fair enough, but clearly, this isn’t a very big piece of the story–basically, Comey disagrees with Trump about Comey being a terrible leader. Not surprising and not important. But nice for writing headlines.

Outside of that section, Comey contradicts smaller details about things Trump has said. For instance, Trump at one point said Comey asked to have dinner, but Comey claims that Trump initiated the dinner. But the point where Comey directly describes Trump’s statements as lies, is the context noted above.

Trump was not personally under investigation by the FBI

This was clarified at several points in the testimony. As Trump claimed, Comey explicitly told the president on three separate occasions, that he was not being personally investigated. Trump apparently thought this should be said publicly for strategic reasons. However, Comey and the FBI leadership disliked this idea because it would then create a “duty to correct” if Trump subsequently became under investigation. Thus, this is the first time we’ve gotten explicit confirmation Trump himself was not being investigated, at least through the date of Comey’s firing.

Comey took Trump’s Flynn comments as a “direction”

In his testimony, Comey released the exact phrase, as he recalls it, that Trump used in the controversial comment surrounding Mike Flynn’s investigation. That quote from Trump went as follows:

I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.

This came a day after Flynn’s firing, and Comey said he interpreted it as a “direction” by Trump to intervene in that investigation on Flynn’s behalf. However, in the testimony, Senator Risch emphasized the exact phrasing and suggested to Come that no one has ever been prosecuted for hoping an outcome occurs. Comey agreed that he was unaware of a prosecution for hoping, but the conversation was a bit theoretical.

In some ways, this exchange proved inconclusive. The phrasing is in line with what had been released previously, but it’s not obvious the courts would stick to a purely literal reading. Still, this is the exchange that Republicans would most likely cite if they claim that Trump is free and clear based on the proceedings.

My own view is that nothing really changed here. It was never likely that Trump was going to be actually prosecuted for obstruction of justice, so this aspect seems to get more attention than it deserves. No matter how disliked he is, he’s still a very powerful politician and this is America. Prosecuting powerful politicians isn’t something we typically do here.

Moreover, impeachment is more about politics than criminality in any case.

Per Comey, the Flynn request was only about Flynn, not about the overall investigation

This is an important detail because it is often claimed that Trump’s comment about Flynn may have been motivated by a desire to shield Trump himself from the Russia investigation. But in Comey’s prepared opening statement, he explicitly says this was not his understanding. The relevant segment is below:

I immediately prepared an unclassified memo of the conversation about Flynn and discussed the matter with FBI senior leadership. I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December. I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign. I could be wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn’s departure and the controversy around his account of his phone calls.

This is relevant to the question of whether Trump was trying to obstruct justice and possible impeachment charges. For better or worse, the president does have the authority to intervene in random federal cases. A presidential pardon is one method, but technically, they can directly order an investigation canceled as well. The latter is considered improper for good reason, but it probably wouldn’t be illegal.

By contrast, if Trump was intervening in an investigation about himself (not a third-party), that’s a much bigger issue. That makes Comey’s parsing here important.

Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch intervened in Clinton email case messaging

One unexpected bombshell from the day’s proceedings concerns former Attorney General Lynch. Here’s the relevant section (emphasis mine):

The Clinton campaign at the time was using all kinds of euphemisms, security matters, things like that for what was going on. We were getting to a place where the attorney general and I were both going to testify and talk publicly about it I wanted to know was she going to authorize us to confirm we have an investigation. She said yes, don’t call it that, call it a matter. I said why would I do that? She said, just call it a matter. You look back in hindsight, if I looked back and said this isn’t worth dying on so I just said the press is going to completely ignore it. That’s what happened when I said we opened a matter.

So AG Lynch told Comey to use language about an active investigation that was clearly intended to downplay its significance. Comey later said the episode gave him “a queasy feeling”.

Trump wanted Russia investigation to be swift, but also wanted aides properly investigated

One source of confusion in the testimony is Trump’s sentiments on the Russia investigation. On the one hand, Trump clearly implies he wants it to be wrapped up for PR reasons; he describes the investigation as “a cloud”. However, Trump also doesn’t seem terribly concerned about it finding​ anything incriminating about him personally. At one point, according to Comey, Trump was even considering ordering the FBI to investigate him directly, effectively to clear his name. Comey apparently advised against this because  “it was very difficult to prove a negative”.

Another interesting revelation is that Trump was apparently fine with his associates being investigated. This is how Comey described it in his prepared remarks:

The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong…

The way this reads, Trump seemed to be perfectly fine to have an investigation of his orbit. The only possible ambiguity here is that he doesn’t say exactly what he’d want to see happen to his “satellites” if they did in fact do something wrong. It sounds like he would be content if all of the relevant information came out, and, implicitly, any wrongdoing gets prosecuted. But a more narrow reading is also possible.

What’s important here is that these sentiments do not appear to fit well with the theory that Trump was trying to shut down the investigation entirely.

Comey has no doubt Russia hacked the election, but there’s a catch

Several times in his testimony, Comey made it clear that he believed the Russians did deliberately interfere in the election. He was certain both that the alleged hacking occurred and that the Russians were responsible.

However, he also confirmed that the FBI never got access to the Democratic National Committee servers that were hacked. Instead, they got all of their information secondhand from the “high class” cybersecurity firm, Crowdstrike, the DNC hired to look into it.

This would be a bit weird in any case. However, it’s especially troubling here given that the same cybersecurity recently published a false / exaggerated report on, wait for it, Russian hacking. The firm ultimately had to issue a  correction when their error was discovered.

Regardless, Comey asserted he has no doubts about the overall Russian hacking story being true.

Comey gave a delightfully frank explanation of why anonymously sourced stories are often wrong

This is a minor detail in the scheme of things, but was a great quote from Comey. At one point, Senator Risch mentions a New York Times story alleging the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Comey had apparently previously suggested this story was incorrect, and he reiterated that in his testimony. But he went farther, and explained why anonymously sourced like that can often be wrong (emphasis added):

In the main, it was not true. And again, all of you know this. Maybe the American people don’t. The challenge, and I’m not picking on reporters about writing stories about classified information, is the people talking about it often don’t really know what’s going on, and [the people that know what’s] going on are not talking about it. We don’t call the press to say, hey, you [got] that thing wrong about the sensitive topic. We have to leave it there.

Needless to say, this is a very interesting explanation. In essence, he’s saying that usually it’s the people on the periphery that leak to the press, not the high-level people. It’s tough to say whether he’s right about that, but it has some appeal to it. This could explain why so many of these stories end up being wrong, without assuming bad faith on the original sources. (And it tends to be a good idea not to rest your arguments on bad faith, in my opinion.)

This was something of an aside from the overall testimony, but it was an interesting one. Also, notably, Comey did not deny the general idea that the Trump campaign might have colluded with the Russians; he took no position on that question. Above, he’s just saying this particular story was not correct.

Where does that leave us?

Ultimately, after hearing Comey’s testimony, we’re pretty much in the same place we started. There’s still no smoking gun showing wrongdoing by Trump. And it’s not at all clear how Democrats could move forward from here without new information coming to light.

On balance, the testimony was probably favorable for Trump. But the issue still isn’t settled, and no doubt, it will continue to dominate the news.

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