Analysis

Comey-Trump Talks Sound Like Medley of West Wing and Godfather IV

Obstruction of justice or not, the FBI Director’s opening statement makes clear he thinks the president is a creep

Trump and Comey.
DREW ANGERER JIM WATSON/AFP

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The written account of James Comey’s opening statement to the Senate on Thursday about his conversations with President Trump may or may not provide evidence of obstruction of justice. Legal experts are already debating the issue even before Comey starts his anxiously awaited testimony on Thursday, though there is an obvious correlation between their judicial opinions and their political outlooks.

But one thing that comes through loud and clear from Comey’s written statement is that he felt that Trump was a creep. Throughout his disturbing White House conversations with Trump, Comey seemed to be thinking, to paraphrase Radiohead: “What the hell’s he doing here? He doesn’t belong here.” Small wonder that like Miss Universe contestants before him, Comey didn’t want to be left alone in a room with Trump, as he told Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

From their very first meeting, Comey decided to keep written records of what Trump was saying to him, and to then share it with the rest of the FBI’s top leadership. He hadn’t done so in his conversations with President Obama, even though the two men clashed on several occasions. From the written statement published on Wednesday night in advance of Comey’s oral testimony, it is clear that the FBI Director sensed that his conversations with Trump were improper and that they might be used in the future as evidence, either against him or against the president. Although he told the president that the FBI did not have an “open” investigation involving him personally, his tone implies that he was far from certain whether this situation was permanent.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who continues to defend Trump despite being repeatedly and thoroughly humiliated by him, said that the president was having “normal New York City conversation” with the FBI chief. Perhaps, but only if you include the kind of tone usually associated with the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, Lucchese or other mafia families. Trump’s demand for “loyalty” from an FBI chief that he knows is investigating his campaign’s ties to Russia, his implied threats to Comey that lacking such loyalty his job might be on the line, his insistence that Comey “let go” of the investigation of Michael Flynn because he’s a “good guy” and his demands that the FBI tell the public that he is clean, even though that situation could change overnight - all of these were neither proper for a president who is being probed nor were they “normal New York Conversation.” They sounded more like lines taken from the script of Godfather IV, mixed in with West Wing, perhaps. Perhaps Trump expected Comey to kneel down, kiss his ring and pledge Omertà, the Cosa Nostra’s code of silence. 

Comey’s statement devotes a surprising amount of attention the infamous “Golden Shower” Dossier compiled by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Comey describes the “personally sensitive information” about Trump as “salacious and unverified” but nonetheless mentions it repeatedly in the opening pages of his statement. He notes that it might be “potentially embarrassing” for the president. To quote Shakespeare, Comey “doth protest too much”, either because he believes that the damning information about Trump is at least partially true, even if it's unverified, or because he wants to make the president squirm, just for the hell of it.

Experts may argue whether Trump’s interventions constitute obstruction of justice. To a layman’s ears, it certainly sounds as if Trump was somewhere between asking and ordering Comey to stop an open investigation, without any connection to whether the evidence justified such a request. Given that the president is, in the final analysis, the FBI director’s boss, he may have leeway in instructing him about ongoing investigations, There’s an appropriate Jewish saying, of course: It may be kosher but it certainly stinks to high heaven.

Trump’s lawyer was quick to announce that the president feels “completely and totally vindicated” by Comey’s statement. Given Trump’s inability to contend with any form of censure or criticism, that statement might factually be true. For normal human beings, however, Comey's statement is, at best, a searing public indictment of a president who doesn’t know how to conduct himself, or, at worst, is actively seeking to squash an investigation that he knows will ultimately lead back to him. A “vindication” it’s not, and this before Comey has opened his mouth, which he will very soon.