Crushing disappointment may be the only way to describe what President Donald Trump’s opponents felt when they read Jim Comey’s memos, leaked Thursday after the Justice Department finally released them to Congress. The partly-redacted documents were hyped by some as the smoking gun that would finally seal the president’s fate. They would show that he had attempted to short-circuit the FBI’s investigation of his alleged collusion with the Russian government. As it turned out, these memos are quite possibly more damaging to Comey himself than to Trump.
The seven memos were composed between early January and mid-March of 2017. Comey was fired by Trump on May 9. The first memo was apparently written immediately following a meeting with then President-Elect Trump at Trump Tower. Of the other six memos, two of them were written after in-person meetings with the president, three of them recounted telephone conversations between Trump and Comey and one recounted Comey’s first post-inauguration ‘meet and greet’ with then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
Why Comey’s Trump Memos Are His Only Memos
The first remarkable thing about Comey’s memos is that they exist at all. The former FBI head himself infers that he wrote them out of concern that future events might necessitate his being able to recall the details of these conversations – specifically, his fear that Trump might, at some future time, lie about the nature of them. One has to wonder why Comey did not think it equally necessary to memorandize his interactions with former Attorney General Loretta Lynch – or with any other high-ranking government official, for that matter.
Comey has admitted that a conversation he had with Lynch, regarding the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, caused him concern. In his recently-published book, he describes Lynch’s behavior in relation to the investigation as “very strange.” Lynch had agreed to accept Comey’s final decision, whatever that would be, but declined to recuse herself from the investigation. According to Comey himself, information that is, to this day, unknown to the public probably disqualified Lynch from being able to objectively oversee the Clinton probe. Comey was also unsettled by Lynch’s demand that he refer to the Clinton investigation as a “matter.”
Surely, then, Comey’s instinct to document conversations that caused him concern would have demanded he record his interactions with Lynch. He did not do so, of course, for the same reason that Clinton was not put under oath when she was interviewed by the FBI: Everyone assumed Clinton would become president and that the Department of Justice, under Lynch, would then erase all traces of the FBI’s investigation. It would have been precarious for Comey if he were ever discovered to have documented his conversations about that investigation with Clinton’s Attorney General.
What The Memos Reveal About Trump
So, what do the Comey memos actually reveal about Donald Trump and his feelings toward the Russia investigation? Among the clearest points that jump out is that Trump did not, during any of his conversations with Comey, express any desire to shut down the Russia investigation. He, Trump, did not pressure the FBI chief to do so or even suggest as much, although he did voice his concern that the issue was a cloud over his presidency and that it was a hindrance to his duties as the chief executive.
The president did express his hope that Comey would not pursue a criminal case against Michael Flynn, who the president had already fired for lying to Vice President Pence. Telling Comey that Flynn had already been through a lot, Trump said “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go. Letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” While this statement is pretty unequivocal, it wasn’t an order and implied no form of repercussion, should Comey have decided not to act on it. It was nothing more than a candid expression of the president’s hope that Flynn not be prosecuted for what, in reality, falls well below the threshold of a major crime.
Trump, Comey, and Loyalty
As to other matters upon which the memo sheds light; it was clear that Trump had taken a keen interest in Clinton’s email scandal and believed that Comey had, essentially, spared her a criminal indictment. It seemed that the president believed most people wanted Comey out; Republicans, for not bringing charges against the former Secretary of State and Democrats for sabotaging Clinton’s presidential bid. Trump appeared to see his keeping Comey on as FBI Director as an act of loyalty to the latter.
The president may not have been concerned by the Russia investigation but he was clearly bothered by the idea that people thought he, himself, was under investigation. Comey had already assured him that he was not but he wanted that fact put out to the public and he solicited Comey’s advice on how that might be achieved. During a phone call in mid-March – documented in Comey’s final memo, interestingly enough – Trump inquired again about making public the fact that he was not the target of the FBI’s investigation. “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal, we had that thing, you know,” Trump said to Comey.
In his memo, Comey says that he didn’t know what the president meant by “that thing” and noted that the conversation had moved away from the subject of the investigation. Nevertheless, one can – reading between the lines – imagine that Trump may have fired his FBI Director less than two months after this conversation because the latter had declined to get the word out that Trump himself was not under investigation. Comey had already advised the president that his White House staff should take the matter up with the then-Acting Attorney General Dana Boente.
It seems, though, that Trump suspected Comey was unwilling to assist him in that matter. Reflecting on Comey’s mishandling of the Clinton investigation, the president saw himself, perhaps, as the next victim of the Director’s apparent inability to act in the interests of anyone but himself.
Back to the Drawing Board For Trump Foes
This is one possibility and nuance is everything. Perhaps Comey was fired because he refused to assure the president that Michael Flynn would not be charged. Be that as it may, One might argue that Trump fired his FBI Director as an act of loyalty to Flynn, but he obviously understood that the Flynn investigation – along with the Russia investigation – would go on, with or without Comey.
What is notably absent from the memos is any indication that President Trump was actively looking for a way to shut down the FBI’s Russia investigation. Further, there is no indication that Trump fired Comey in order to end that investigation. Indeed, the president seemed eager that the FBI investigate the matter thoroughly enough to disprove the salacious allegations made against him in the Steele ‘dossier’.
Among the president’s political enemies, the main hope was that these memos, once released, would prove to the nation that Donald Trump obstructed justice when he fired James Comey. There is simply no evidence of that within these pages – and certainly, none that would stand up to legal scrutiny. As Robert Mueller continues, it seems, to draw a blank on collusion, as Comey’s much-anticipated memoir fails to deliver the fatal blow to Trump’s presidency and now, as the famous memos also miss the mark, it is back to drawing board for those intent on reversing the result of the 2016 election.