James Comey would never have done that: Last month, on two separate occasions, Donald J. Trump made an accurate statement.
For background, see Monday's post.
On Tuesday, May 9, Trump unexpectedly fired James B. Comey, the head of the FBI. In a short, stylistically clownish letter, Trump made the accurate statement lodged in this note of thanks:
''I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation."
Two days later, on Thursday, May 11, Trump discussed the firing with NBC's Lester Holt, Trump expanded on his earlier statement:
HOLT (5/11/17): Let me ask you about your termination letter to Mr. Comey. You write, "I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation." Why did you put that in there?The point was discussed in some detail. Trump said that Comey had told him this at a private dinner, then in two subsequent phone calls. (These details may have been wrong.)
DONALD J. TRUMP: Because he told me that. I mean, he told me that.
HOLT: He told you you weren't under investigation with regard to the Russia investigation?
DONALD J. TRUMP: Yeah. And I've heard that, I've heard that from others.
Last Thursday, Comey confirmed the basics of Trump's account during his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Today, we want you consider what happened when Trump made his accurate statement last month, an accurate statement which seemed to impugn the divinity of an Official Press God.
At times like these, when a chase is on, how reliable are the assessments and presentations of our reporters and pundits? Not hugely reliable! We think this episode provides a good example of this important point.
Trump fired Comey on May 9. Initially, most discussion concerned the unlikely reason Trump seemed to have given for his surprising action.
By May 12, attention was moving toward Trump's surprising claim about what Comey had told him. That morning, a front-page report in the Washington Post cast shade on Trump's implausible claim about what Comey had said:
BARRETT (5/12/17): In the NBC interview, Trump said Comey came to eat dinner with him at the White House. "I think he asked for the dinner. ... And he wanted to stay at the FBI, and I said I'll, you know, consider and see what happens. ... But we had a very nice dinner, and at that time he told me, 'You are not under investigation.' ''According to the Washington Post, the savants agreed—a man like Comey just wouldn't do something like that. After all, Comey the God "prides himself on strict observance of propriety," according to one law professor who spent last year on Neptune.
The exchange as described by the president is remarkable because he said the FBI director was discussing an ongoing investigation with the president—something Justice Department policy generally prohibits—at the same time Comey was seeking assurances that he would remain in his job.
Current and former officials said Trump's description of statements by Comey is not accurate, but they declined to elaborate. Legal experts also expressed doubts about Trump's account.
"I just can't even begin to think about that comment being true,'' said Michael Greenberger, a law professor at the University of Maryland who has previously worked in the Justice Department. "It defies belief in general because of the practices of not commenting on investigations, and it would especially defy belief in the case of Comey, who prides himself on strict observance of propriety."
Greenberger noted that the implication of Trump's statement is severe—that Comey may have offered that assurance to try to ingratiate himself with the president and remain in his job. "I just have a very hard time imagining that,'' he said, though he added he also didn't think Trump simply asking that question came close to a criminal act of trying to obstruct the investigation.
Whatever one thinks of Comey's behavior with Trump, those experts turned out to be wrong. That said, other experts and pundits had been expressing this general view for several days by the time of that Post report.
Dearest darlings, use your heads! Everyone knew that a man like James Comey just wouldn't do something like that!
On our cable "news"/entertainment channels, the huffing and puffing got started right away. On May 9, Jim Sciutto told the Anderson Cooper crowd that Trump's statement was false:
SCIUTTO (5/9/17): Just a point about the investigation. The president in his letter to Comey citing three times, "Thank you for saying that I'm not a subject of this investigation." The president yesterday tweeting out, in fact, making it a home page of the Twitter page, that Clapper, former Director Clapper in the hearings yesterday, confirmed there's no evidence of collusion.Sciutto got there first. By the next night, many cable viewers were told that Trump's statement had to be false, and that a man like Comey the God would never do such a thing.
The fact is neither of the statements is true.
On CNN, legal analyst Susan Hennessey clued Don Lemon in:
LEMON (5/10/17): Susan, if you talk to the White House, you listen to the president, they say there is no investigation, that Comey told them three times that he wasn't being investigated.According to Hennessey, a man like Comey would never breach fundamental norms in such a lawless matter. Even weirder was the way Trump lied about it!
HENNESSEY: That doesn't really make any sense. The notion that Comey would tell somebody was under investigation that he was under investigation, that breaches sort of fundamental law enforcement norms. We're already we're seeing from individuals with knowledge of that actually is not accurate.
So the notion that the president would include that in the letter in the first place is incredibly strange. The notion that he would actually lie about it, even stranger.
On MSNBC, Lawrence's viewers also heard that Donald J. Trump had lied. Joy Reid told them that he'd accused Comey of doing something which might even be a crime:
REID (5/10/17): They told two lies that Democrats could easily puncture by putting both Jim Comey and Mr. Rosenstein under oath.Later in that show, Rep. Himes seemed amazed by what Trump had said. He was less willing to leap to conclusions. But he seemed to say it would be very odd for Comey to do what Trump said:
They have accused Jim Comey of doing something—it might in and of itself be a crime—of telling Donald Trump three times that he is not under investigation. Donald Trump put that in writing under his own signature in that letter firing Jim Comey.
HIMES (5/10/17): Absolutely, I'm interested in hearing from Comey. Now he can, for example, answer a question which is certainly burning on my mind which is, "My God, did you really tell the president of the United States three times that he was not subject to an investigation?"On May 11, the incredulity broke wide. As we noted on Monday, the Wall Street Journal published a news report which included these pleasing denials by associates of the god:
That in and of itself would be wildly unusual for an FBI director to do. Why an FBI director would talk to an individual whose at least campaign is under investigation, we know that to be true—You know, boy, the questions that come out of that alone!
WILBER, FORREST AND BALLHAUS (5/11/17): Mr. Comey’s associates also denied the claim made by Mr. Trump, in his letter firing Mr. Comey, that the director told him on three occasions that he wasn’t under investigation. They said Mr. Comey never gave Mr. Trump any such guidance, which would violate longstanding policies on criminal investigations. “That is literally farcical,” said one associate.According to the Journal, associates of Comey the God were offering flat denials. As with Superman's Chuckles the Clown, they knew that the real Comey the God would never violate longstanding policies in the way Trump had described!
“That is literally farcical,” one associate said. This colorful statement spread like wildfire.
Trump's statement was literally farcical! The colorful put-down was cited in The Hill, The Week, The Intercept and Vanity Fair.
The remark was cited by TPM, by Vanity Fair, by GQ and Think Progress. The leftier the publication, the snarkier the presentation.
"Trump’s lies are being exposed. Drip. Drip. Drip." Thus spake Mediaite. When New York Magazine cited the statement, Professor Tribe showed up:
LEVITZ (5/11/17): [L]ong-standing FBI policy would have barred Comey from providing the president such assurances about an ongoing criminal investigation.At least he said "appears." On CNN, Cooper cited the comment too.
For whatever reason, associates of the former FBI director have an easier time believing that Donald Trump would brazenly lie than that James Comey would flout protocol.
“That is literally farcical,” one Comey ally told The Wall Street Journal.
Various Justice Department veterans expressed similar sentiments.
“That self-serving assertion was completely implausible,” Harvard Law School professor and Obama administration alum Laurence Tribe told CNBC. “To put it bluntly, it appears to have been a blatant lie.”
COOPER (5/11/17): As we reported in a new interview with Lester Holt, Pres. Trump repeated the claim that FBI Director James Comey told him three times he was not under investigation. We don't know if that's true. In fact, Comey's associates are quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, "That didn't happen. It would never happen." One associate called the quote "literally farcical.""In fact," Comey's associates had said that. Meanwhile, is Gloria Borger ever not wrong? During this same discussion, she fearlessly said, of Comey the God, "He's certainly not going to say, 'Oh by the way, you're not under investigation.'"
Except he had said it, to Donald J. Trump, on three separate occasions!
On MSNBC that same night, Chris Hayes repeated the "literally farcical" denial, as did Greta Van Susteren and several guests. Presciently, a former assistant FBI chief worriedly told Greta this:
HOSKO (5/11/17): I've walked up on somebody for an interview and, you know, you've gotten the reaction, "Hold on, am I under investigation?" And it's ridiculous. You're looking at them as a witness and say, "No, of course not. Here's what I need to ask you about." But under these circumstances, where there is an ongoing investigation of Russian influence where it has publicly touched people around the president, I think it's much more concerning in this context.Alone among a sea of deniers, Ron Hosko said it was "concerning" to think that Comey the God might have done that!
At this point, might we author an heretical thought? It was at this time that Donald J. Trump issued his warning about the possible existence of audiotapes.
Is it possible that this warning made Comey's "associates" temper their dramatic claims? Citizens, we're just asking!
At any rate, by Friday, May 12, even the best were getting dragged into the cable maws.
Ari Melber guest hosted for Lawrence that night. He played tape of acting FBI director McCabe making a slippery statement, under oath, about Trump's widely ridiculed claim.
("As you know, Senator, we typically do not answer that question. I will not comment on whether or not the director and the president of the United States had that conversation.")
No one yelled at McCabe for refusing to discuss his knowledge of what Comey had said! After Melber played the tape, he had this unfortunate exchange with a former federal prosecutor:
MELBER (5/12/17): Joyce, do you take from that that the acting director does not think Jim Comey told the president, three times, that he was not under investigation?Everyone knew it! As with Chuckles the Clown, the real Jim Comey would never have wanted to compromise any potential investigations! With that in mind, Melber announced that Donald Trump's claim was "one of the most ridiculous parts of this."
VANCE: So I seriously doubt that Acting Director McCabe thinks that he gave those answers. And I do, too. This early in an investigation, even if there was a situation where a lawyer was talking with a target, you would never say that the investigation doesn't touch you because you don't know what facts might unfold. And so whether you're a target today you could be a target down the road. There are legal consequences to telling someone they`re not a target in terms of the admissibility of any statements they might make in the future or other actions.
Director Comey, former Director Comey would have never wanted to compromise any potential investigations. I think it's extraordinarily unlikely that those words ever came out of his mouth.
MELBER: Yes. It's one of the most ridiculous parts of this. Because Jim Comey, FBI director and former deputy attorney general knows that if you're investigating an organization, you're not going to rule out the head of the organization at the beginning of the inquiry. It's just not how these things work.
On All In, Clint Watts felt the same sense of assurance. He couldn't imagine why a man like Comey the God would do what Trump had said:
HAYES (5/12/17): The President said that, twice now, he said...that the director told him three times he was not under investigation. Could you conceive of any plausible scenario in which that might have happened?Comey the God has remarkable skill and he's particularly careful! He has an ability to preserve his reputation. There's no way that a god of that type would have done something like this!
WATTS: No. I can't imagine why the Director would say that, other than his testimony where he confirmed that they had some active investigation going on with his campaign. That's the only time he did that, and Director Comey is particularly careful, as we just heard with his words. He's not going to make these statements which put him in a position of his own compromise.
HAYES: Given Comey's level of skill in navigating this that you have, that you have identified, Matt, and it`s really a remarkable thing to go back and look at his 2007 testimony when he talked about that famous night at the bed of John Ashcroft. He has an ability to preserve his reputation amidst many controversial things.
There's much, much more to this collection of failed remarks. In one key way, this statement by Rachel Maddow is especially worthy of note:
MADDOW (5/12/17): The president says he had three different conversations with the FBI director before he fired him. Conversations in which the FBI director told him that he's not under investigation by the FBI.As it turned out, Comey didn't exactly decline to pledge that loyalty oath. According to his own testimony, he made an ambiguous pledge which Trump may have misunderstood!
Now, people close to the FBI director say those conversations never happened. They say what happened at a White House dinner between President Trump and FBI Director James Comey is that President Trump demanded a loyalty oath from the FBI director, which the FBI director declined to give.
Whatever! He's Comey the God!
You're looking here at the soul of tribal punditry during a major chase. It's especially key to see the way a person gets treated in such stampedes if he's already been granted the status of living god.
Over the years, our benighted national "press corps" has bestowed the status of World's Most Forthright and Honest Person on a string of demigods, most of them Republicans. The press corps' character judgments have been remarkably poor, but once this designation is made, the children will all react in the way you've been seeing here:
Everyone knows they must say that the real [Insert Name] would never do something like that!
In fact, Comey's testimony last week seemed to be full of shaky behavior on his part. We'll consider that point tomorrow.
For today, let's quit with Professor Tribe. On Sunday, May 14, he published an op-ed column in the Washington Post.
It was the highest profile day of the week. Readers of the Washington Post saw the professor say this:
"Trump accompanied that confession with self-serving—and manifestly false—assertions about having been assured by Comey that Trump himself was not under investigation."
Trump's claim was "manifestly false!" So said our team's most famous law professor. Three weeks later, Comey said that he actually had made that statement three times.
Our reporters and pundits are barely human. They demonstrate this troubling fact every day and each night of the week.
We've told you this for nineteen years. Truth to tell, we human beings just aren't equipped to process this strange bit of truth.