The ghosts of Washington wafted through a U.S. Senate hearing room on Thursday, as a fired FBI director told of a sitting U.S. president so prone to untruths that instant CYA memos were required for every encounter.
The late Richard Nixon was there. A long dead J. Edgar Hoover slipped in, too. Even Thomas Becket, the ancient saint and murdered archbishop of Canterbury, made a quick Brexit for his first D.C. cameo in nearly a thousand years.
Like a noose that suddenly manifests itself in an African-American museum, the spirits were there to make sure we understood that the past isn’t dead. It hasn’t even left the building.
Even without the ghosts, James Comey’s testimony was riveting proof that revenge can also satisfy when served lukewarm – only one month after an abrupt sacking.
A seven-page affidavit, detailing Comey’s series of meetings with President Donald Trump, had been released 20 hours earlier. It was merely the first course, allowing the witness to skip the preliminaries in a televised hearing that saturated the nation.
The fired director immediately branded the Trump administration as a well of falsehoods. Comey said he was “confused” by the White House’s initial citation of his pre-election actions regarding Hillary Clinton’s emails as a reason for his firing. Which was followed by Trump’s own acknowledgement that the FBI’s Russia investigation was on his mind when he decided to fire Comey.
“Although the law required no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI — by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader,” Comey said. “Those were lies, plain and simple.”
Then there was Comey’s explanation for the instant memos he wrote after each meeting with the president. The FBI director recorded demands for loyalty, a plea to go easy on fired national security adviser Mike Flynn, and repeated requests to “lift the cloud” that the Russia investigation had placed over Trump’s world.
The president made his wants known over the phone, or in purposely emptied rooms. Also figuring in Comey’s calculations was “the nature of the person.” Meaning the president. “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting, so I thought it important to document,” Comey said.
The White House denies all – but celebrated the fact that, on Thursday, Trump actually got one of the things he wanted: A public acknowledgement that, at least when Comey headed the FBI, the president hadn’t been implicated in its Russia investigation.
During his hearing, the former FBI director also tossed Senate Republicans a bone, at one point recounting that, during the probe of Clinton’s rogue email server, then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch had ordered him to use the word “matter” rather than “investigation.”
Comey even engaged in some necessary self-deprecation, calling his own failure to refuse Trump’s demands outright as “cowardly.”
But ghosts were required to give Comey’s testimony that true Shakespearean sense of tragedy — of good men brought low even as they try do the right thing.
Before his inauguration, Comey made the decision to brief Trump on the FBI investigation into a salacious, unverified packet of opposition research that alleged connections between Trump, his operatives, and Russia. The packet suggested the incoming president would be ripe for blackmail. “[Trump] said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia,” Comey helpfully wrote in his affidavit.
But Comey said he also didn’t want the next president to think that the FBI was the party doing the blackmailing — as had once been the case. When the nation’s most powerful law enforcement agency was under the thumb of its founding director, even presidents feared what was in his files.
“I was worried very much about being in kind of a J. Edgar Hoover-type situation,” Comey said. “I didn’t want him thinking I was briefing him on this to sort of hang it over him in some way.”
Comey assured Trump, still two weeks away from his inauguration, that he wasn’t implicated in the FBI counterintelligence investigation. But clearly, the president-elect’s reaction bothered him, because as soon as Comey left Trump Tower, he began is note-taking habit.
In February, an Oval Office meeting concluded with the new president ordering everyone out of the room except Comey. Trump, according to Comey, brought up the topic of the recently fired Flynn. “I hope you can let this go,” the president supposedly said. In March, Trump called with a request that the FBI director “lift the cloud” of the Russian investigation.
On Thursday, several Republican senators noted that these were not direct orders. And so it was left to Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, to ask Comey if, when a U.S. president says “I hope or I suggest,” the head of the FBI is obliged to take that as a directive.
“Yes,” Comey said. “It rings in my ear as, well, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”
On a December day in 1170, the senator explained to his less erudite colleagues, King Henry II of England said something very close to that. The next day, the senator from Maine noted, Thomas Becket was dead.
But it was the ghost of Richard Nixon that made the biggest splash on Thursday. In 1974, Nixon was forced to resign his presidency, after having been forced to release secret White House recordings that implicated him in the Watergate cover-up.
On the Friday morning in May after he had ordered Comey gone, the president took to Twitter. “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump tapped out.
Days later, Comey said he woke up in the middle of the night, realizing that such tapes – we don’t know if they really exist – would be his friend. “It didn’t dawn on me originally, that there might be corroboration for our conversation,” he told senators. “There might a tape. My judgment was, I need to get that out into the public square.”
The tapes would need something to corroborate.
And so the FBI director offered a confession rarely heard in Washington. He had leaked notes of his meetings with Trump – which were unclassified, he emphasized – to a journalist, via a law professor friend.
The purpose, Comey said, was to force the appointment of a special counsel to look into Russia’s attempt to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
You might say the spirits moved him.