Former FBI Director James Comey testifies during a US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, June 8, 2017. Fired...
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI

FBI’s Comey raises the stakes in Trump’s Russia scandal

Updated

It was a day much of the political world had circled on its calendar, and for good reason. As the investigation into Donald Trump’s Russia scandal intensifies, former FBI Director James Comey gave sworn testimony this morning before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

And what, pray tell, did we learn? Quite a bit, actually.

1. Comey thinks Trump is a liar. Comey’s opening statement called out Trump for making “plain and simple” lies about the FBI, and his testimony made multiple references to Comey’s concerns about the president’s habit of dishonesty, including the explanation about his contemporaneous memos: “I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting.”

This may not have been surprising on a substantive level, but to hear a former FBI director give sworn testimony that the president cannot be trusted to tell the truth struck me as amazing.

2. Obstruction. Asked about Trump’s possible obstruction of justice, which seems more obvious now than ever, Comey twice said that was up to the special counsel, saying it’s a question Bob Mueller and his team “will work toward.” I’d love some additional clarity: did that mean the special counsel could explore alleged obstruction or is already in the process of investigating alleged obstruction?

Also note, Comey said Trump’s request about the investigation into Mike Flynn is of “investigative interest” to the FBI, which probably isn’t what the White House wanted to hear.

3. Consider the partisan wagons circled. Those hoping Senate Republicans might eventually break with the White House’s preferred script will apparently have to wait for some other day. GOP senators didn’t defend Trump, per se, but their questions once again proved that tribal loyalties outweigh practically every other consideration, Trump’s 34% approval rating be damned.

4. Comey made news about Sessions. One of the questions that emerged yesterday is why Comey assumed Attorney General Jeff Sessions would have to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Comey testified today that Sessions’ role would’ve been “problematic” for reasons the former FBI director couldn’t discuss publicly. That’s a big deal.

5. Collusion. Does Comey believe Trump colluded with Russia? “It’s a question I don’t think I should answer in an open setting,” he replied. Leaving that open-ended seemed to catch everyone by surprise, and for good reason.

6. The January dinner. Trump’s “loyalty” appeal, Comey said, was made in the context of the president “looking to get something in exchange.”

7. Flynn. The FBI had thousands of ongoing investigations, but Trump only spoke to Comey about one: the case against former White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, whose answers to the FBI about his Russia contacts, we now know, are also part of a criminal investigation.

8. “Let this go.” When Trump spoke to Comey about Flynn, the then-FBI director “took it as a direction” from the president. This struck me as a line we’ll be hearing again and again as obstruction allegations continue to take shape.

9. Trump remains his own worst enemy. As with so many other areas in recent months, if the president hadn’t undermined his own position with dubious tweets and falsehoods, Comey would’ve been less inclined to push back.

10. A little trolling. Asked why he believes he was fired, Comey pointed to Trump’s confession to Lester Holt that the decision was based on the president’s objections to the Russia investigation. Comey said he takes Trump “at his word,” which seemed like a pretty brutal thing to say.

11. Rosenstein. Comey shared his concerns about Trump with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and then Rosenstein wrote a memo for Trump about Comey’s dismissal. This is an angle that shouldn’t be swept aside.

12. McCain. I’ve been critical of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for many years, but today seemed like a low point for his lengthy career. His incoherent suggestion that Clinton may have cooperated with Russia to undermine her own campaign was probably the dumbest argument offered by anyone in this entire controversy.

Assorted partisans and observers will look for morsels that bolster one argument or another, but the bottom line remains the same: Trump’s Russia scandal has reached a more serious level as a result of Comey’s testimony.