You’ve watched the trailer, now tune in for the movie.
Former FBI Director James Comey released what he plans to say before the Senate on Thursday morning. It showed that he wrongly thought he could turn a persistent pass at obstructing justice by the president into a teachable moment. FBI directors, Comey told Trump, aren’t politicians, their jobs aren’t the result of patronage, and they don’t pledge loyalty to a president of either party.
But Trump does not take instruction. He’d tried every which way to get Comey to swear his loyalty at a dinner in the White House, a dinner Trump previously said Comey asked for (he did not) and which turned out to be, to Comey’s surprise, just the two of them.
Just reading about it is painful. Trump reopened whether Comey would keep his job, a matter Comey thought had been settled, and then insisted on a pledge of loyalty. When Comey said he could only go so far as to promise honesty, Trump went silent, his way of dominating a situation if he doesn’t actually humiliate the person he’s angry with. To end the standoff and escape the White House, Comey offered up “honest loyalty.”
Comey wrote about that night and eight other conversations with the president in which Trump tried to get him to pledge his allegiance, to remove the cloud hanging over his head, to give “good guy” Michael Flynn a pass. While Comey wanted to forget dinner, Trump harked back to it in a call he made to Comey, hoping for one last chance to have his way.
“I’ve been very loyal,” Trump said in the phone call. “We had that ‘thing,’ you know.” Oh, but they didn’t have any such “thing.” Trump finally got the message. The breakup was brutal, as Trump fired Comey while he was in the middle of a speech to agents in Los Angeles.
After reading the advance testimony, Trump’s lawyer issued a statement saying Trump had been vindicated. He’d said the president had asked Comey three times if he were the subject of the investigation and been told he wasn’t. Comey confirmed that. Ignoring all the other revelations that show Trump’s memory is at odds with Comey’s contemporaneous notes about the pressure being exerted, Trump is “pleased.” We’ll see how long that lasts.
If this were a movie, it would be laughably overwritten. In The Godfather, Michael had his consigliere pressure the authorities, finding it too tawdry to do himself. In one encounter, Trump even brought up using the FBI to discredit the British intelligence report that had him doing you-don’t-want-to-know with prostitutes in Moscow. Comey demurred. He found Trump so creepily persistent — at one White House meeting Trump asked everyone to leave so he could be alone with Comey — he implored Attorney General Jeff Sessions to protect him from ever being alone with the president again. Not that Comey was sure Sessions would. Comey was no longer sure whom he could trust.
So far Comey’s testimony doesn’t change what we already know about Trump trying to end the Russia investigation by ending the “nut job” Comey’s job. It does add enough color to make you wonder if Comey consumed a bite at one of the most awkward dinners anywhere, much less the White House.
Comey isn’t drawing legal conclusions, but we have enough information to do so. Pre-Comey testimony, Trump had already blithely admitted — in an interview on NBC, with Russian officials in the Oval Office, and in tweets — that he fired Comey to get him off his back. So much for the carefully crafted White House statement that Trump had fired Comey because the deputy attorney general thought he should be and because Comey had bungled the Hillary Clinton email investigation. As ridiculous as that excuse was, it would have taken some untangling to disprove it. Thank you, Mr. President, for doing it for us.
The president’s own words reveal more about the state of his mind that anything Comey can tell us (or that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats did not tell us in his testimony Wednesday). Coats refused to confirm that he told associates that Trump had asked him to contact Comey on his behalf, citing no justification for stonewalling other than it didn’t feel right. Just wait and Trump may tell us himself.
Trump’s handling of Comey mirrors Trump’s general bungling of just about everything and a decline in his temperament. It used to be that Trump was a danger to others — and to the planet — as he increasingly came under the sway of his demons and chief strategist Steve Bannon. Now he’s become a danger to himself, a much more troubling state of mind. The coverup put out by the White House lasts no longer than it takes Trump to get to his phone and blurt out that he’s found the real killer, or killers, and it’s him. His general ignorance about government may well extend to the Constitution. He’s apparently unfamiliar with his right not to incriminate himself.
The decline is obvious, as is his inability to no longer distinguish friend from foe. After conversations with several, it’s clear that it’s a shifting cavalcade, that friends and staff go in and out of favor, get a seat on the plane or are left behind, are invited to an audience with the pope or are left in the SUV outside. One says friends to Trump are like furniture he can move around or kick to the curb when it suits him. The characters in the doghouse change, but it is almost always full.
Look at the trajectory of Jeff Sessions. No one operating on all cylinders would ice out the most pliable lawyer Trump could ever find to serve as attorney general. Trump would only do better if he were to replace the ostracized Sessions with one of his casino attorneys. His anger at Sessions for being so weak as to recuse himself from the Russia investigation had become so obvious that Sessions reportedly offered his resignation.
Chief of Staff Reince Priebus hasn’t offered his, but rumors of his demise are so constant he might as well be gone. He is protected now, friends say, in that he’s a material witness in the Russia investigation. It’s saving him from expulsion, though not from humiliation.
The much ballyhooed shakeup is only happening to the extent Trump can find replacements (he can’t). Instead, he leaves his staff shaking with fear, unsure of who is up or down from one day to the next and at his blanket unhappiness with all performances but his own.
One reason Trump blurts out what he’s done — and why — is that he believes whatever he does is admirable. Everyone used to tell him so. He’s mystified that becoming president hasn’t made it more so.
The actual hearing Thursday promises to be must-see TV as the networks cover it live and bars open at 10 a.m. in Washington to host binge-watchers. We’ll see if Trump is still pleased by Comey. If past is prologue, we’ll quickly find out @realDonaldTrump.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and managing editor at the New Republic. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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