Donald Trump's brief presidency has been marked by an estrangement from truth. He exaggerates. He spins. He mangles facts. He uses words without care.
Contrast this to the man Trump fired last month, James Comey. The former FBI director takes careful notes. He understates. He has cultivated a reputation as a by-the-book Boy Scout, so rigidly scrupulous that he has run afoul of partisans on both sides.
So it's strange that Comey's devastating testimony before the Senate on Thursday will end up vindicating in part something Trump and his advisers have been saying for months: The FBI was not investigating the president as part of its probe into Russian election interference.
Make no mistake. The Boy Scout will fire back at the president who fired him. He will testify that he was asked to drop the investigation into Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Comey will say that Trump demanded his loyalty. He will say how he believed it was inappropriate for Trump to contact him to discuss these investigations. And yet, according to his written testimony released by the committee, Comey will also say he assured Trump privately on three occasions that he was not being investigated by the FBI.
One could be forgiven for not believing the president at first when he said the same thing.
Trump has said many things that have not been true. Initially the White House said Comey was fired because of the bizarre way he handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server. Then Trump himself acknowledged to NBC News that he fired Comey in part because of the Russia investigation. If Trump can't get his story straight on why he fired Comey, why should anyone believe him when he says Comey assured him he was not a target of the Russia investigation?
Also Comey himself, until now, did not back up the White House account. When he testified in April before the House Intelligence Committee, he announced that the FBI was investigating possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, but declined to say anything else.
When asked directly at a May 3 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Comey was also mum. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, asked Comey if he would rule out Trump himself as a target of the FBI investigation. Comey replied: "I'm not going to comment on anyone in particular, because that puts me down a slope of, because if I say no to that, then I have to answer succeeding questions."
Comey is finally putting some cards on the table. In his written testimony he explains that the FBI opened investigations into witting or unwitting agents of Russia during its operation to influence the 2016 election. "In that context, prior to the January 6 meeting, I discussed with the FBI’s leadership team whether I should be prepared to assure President-Elect Trump that we were not investigating him personally," he wrote. "That was true; we did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him. We agreed I should do so if circumstances warranted. During our one-on-one meeting at Trump Tower, based on President-Elect Trump’s reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance."
At a private dinner with Trump on Jan. 27, Comey says that he rebuffed Trump's recommendation to investigate and debunk elements of an opposition-research dossier that alleged Trump had engaged in sex parties in Moscow. Comey says he told the president at the time that he was not the target of an investigation.
Then in a March 30 phone call, the topic came up again. Comey wrote, "I explained that we had briefed the leadership of Congress on exactly which individuals we were investigating and that we had told those congressional leaders that we were not personally investigating President Trump."
It's possible that since March 30, the investigation has turned and the president is now a target. There is no evidence on the public record to support this yet. Another interpretation is that Trump became exasperated after Comey wouldn't say in the May 3 hearing that the president was not under investigation. Comey's silence in this respect left a cloud over the White House.
In one sense, it's understandable that Comey did not want to say one way or the other who the FBI was investigating. As he writes in his testimony, if Trump did emerge later on as a target, Comey would be compelled to correct the public record. Something like this happened on the eve of the 2016 election when Comey found out that there were Clinton emails on Anthony Weiner's laptop that the bureau may not have not have read earlier in the year, when Comey had concluded that no reasonable prosecutor would seek an indictment of Clinton for her use of a private email server as secretary of state.
At the same time, one can understand Trump's own exasperation. Since his presidency began, Trump has been suspected of ties to Russia. Privately, he was assured that he was not a target, and yet publicly the FBI left the impression that he might be one, by declining to say one way or the other.
Now, in this damning public account, Comey will acknowledge what Trump was trying to get him to say all along. Too late. Imagine if Trump had just allowed the investigation to play out. Then the scandal Washington has compared to Watergate may have petered out into Whatervergate. In this case, to borrow that scandal's adage, the cover-up may well end up being the crime.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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