Former FBI Director James Comey offered a vivid look at the nexus of politics and press in Washington Thursday as he revealed he disclosed to the press a key memo about a meeting with President Trump.
It was a tale of revenge that could come back to haunt the president.
If there was a sliver of a doubt about Comey’s finesse as a longtime inside bureaucratic player, it was dispelled during his much-heralded Senate testimony that prompted 24/7 pre-hearing speculated (especially on cable news networks) and blanket press coverage Thursday.
After being fired by President Trump, he contacted an unidentified friend at Columbia University Law School and asked the friend to leak a memo to the media, apparently The New York Times.
The purpose was to speed the possibility of a special counsel being appointed to investigate links between Russia and both the Trump election campaign and administration.
That gambit is part and parcel of the self-protective ways of government players as they seek to shape press coverage involving themselves. But the aim of actually triggering a potential criminal investigation involving the White House would constitute a distinctly hardball variation on an old theme.
Though the thrust of Comey’s testimony had been disclosed the day before, there was no shortage of disclosures Thursday that fed a ravenous media and was grist for seemingly second-by-second tweets for many journalists.
Not only was there the early declaration that Comey fretted that Trump “might lie about the nature of our meeting” but, after he was fired, explicitly leaked information to the press via a friend.
It came after Trump warned that Comey had best not leak any information lest there be tapes of their key Oval Office meeting. Comey said that insinuation panicked him late at night and prompted the contact with a friend.
Was it Ben Wittes, a journalist and legal scholar at the Brookings Institution who has been a very public defender of Comey? No, he said. He didn’t identify the Columbia professor but the disclosure surely prompted an instant media search for the chum.
A May 16 Times story disclosed the seemingly startling fact, “President Trump asked the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, to shut down the federal investigation into Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo Mr. Comey wrote shortly after the meeting.”
As far as attribution, it indicated, “Mr. Comey shared the existence of the memo with senior F.B.I. officials and close associates. The New York Times has not viewed a copy of the memo, which is unclassified, but one of Mr. Comey’s associates read parts of it to a Times reporter.”
And while Comey claimed to have been unsettled in the middle of the night by the Trump warning, he also asserted, “Lord, I hope there are tapes” as he made clear his confidence in his version of a key one-on-one discussion with Trump.
As far as the source and recipient of information on the Comey memo, The Washington Post reported, “The friend is Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor who confirmed his role but declined further comment. The reporter is Michael Schmidt of The New York Times, who declined to comment.”
Another Times disclosure, however, was deemed incorrect by Comey, who apparently played no part in its creation.
On Feb. 14 the paper disclosed, “Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.”
“That report by The New York Times was not true. Is that a fair statement?” Sen. Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican on the Intelligence Committee, asked Comey.
“In the main, it was not true,” came the response. “The challenge, and I’m not picking on reporters, about writing on classified information is: The people talking about it often don’t really know what’s going on, and those of us who actually know what’s going on are not talking about it.”
With a certain amount of possibly hypocrisy, Comey then said, “And we don’t call the press to say, ‘Hey, you got that thing wrong about this sensitive topic.’ We just have to leave it there.”
There are no shortage of reporters who work or have worked in the capital who might challenge that assertion about the purity of Justice Department officials.
The New York Times responded to Comey’s testimony on Twitter Thursday:
We are looking into James Comey's statements, and we will report back with more information as soon as we can. https://t.co/v9OzWbbjUP
— The New York Times (@nytimes) June 8, 2017
Meanwhile, the hearing launched scads of tweets by reporters, with conflicting assertions for what was the most important.
Some maintained that it was Comey saying Trump did not ask him to halt the Russia probe. Others, like CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, said it was otherwise: “Comey’s statement establishes obstruction of justice by Trump. Period.”
Meanwhile, Trump restrained himself from tweeting during the morning session, though it was unclear whether he had caught any of the action on television.
The only White House statement on anything was a press release related to the Obama administration and what the new administration claims was a “misuse of settlement slush funds” by the Obama Justice Department.
No surprise, the end of the hearing generated lots of instant punditry.
Politically, Fox’s Chris Wallace said, the morning session might have offered Trump solace as far as pressuring Comey to end the Russia probe.
But, he said, it was potentially politically damaging for Trump as the former FBI chief called him a liar.
To that extent, the coming of a special counsel, Robert Mueller, could go down in history as a direct function of a self-inflicted wound of Trump’s, namely his badmouthing Comey after dismissing him.
It was more than clear Thursday that Comey exacted his revenge in classic Washington fashion.