Analysis: Comey's 'honest loyalty' Trumps 'that thing'
Prepared testimony reveals Trump wanted the public to know the 'secret' that he was not under investigation
By TATIANA PROPHET
In written remarks submitted to the U.S. Senate intelligence committee, James Comey described a dinner between him and the President in which Trump asked him for loyalty; and also separately confirmed that he had informed Trump that he was not under criminal investigation. This was a claim Trump made in a tweet shortly after firing Comey.
The former FBI director wrote in his testimony: "It is important to understand that FBI counter-intelligence investigations are different than the more-commonly known criminal investigative work. The Bureau’s goal in a counter-intelligence investigation is to understand the technical and human methods that hostile foreign powers are using to influence the United States or to steal our secrets."
This information was confirmed in March 2017 in articles describing the investigation into Trump campaign involvement in Russian meddling in the U.S. election as a counterintelligence investigation, not a criminal one. And even as a counter-intelligence investigation, it turns out the President was right, he was not under one. Yet most of us would not have thought that to be true. So why the reluctance by Comey to reveal that? The confusion lingered through May when many media articles, after Comey's firing, expressed incredulity as in this factcheck.org story that Trump would assert Comey had told him that he was not under investigation. In fact, Politifact said there was no way to know if Trump was under probe because there were no news reports out about it. Politifact had to alter their fact check on Trump's assertion on Wednesday.
On Wednesday Comey wrote: "...prior to the January 6 meeting, I discussed with the FBI’s leadership team whether I should be prepared to assure President-Elect Trump that we were not investigating him personally. That was true; we did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him. We agreed I should do so if circumstances warranted. During our one-on-one meeting at Trump Tower, based on President-Elect Trump’s reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance."
The appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia will likely change the nature of the probe into a criminal one, however.
And the idea that Trump was not under investigation, as he asserted in his tweets, is an important one because it sets the stage for understanding the remaining interactions described by Comey in his prepared testimony. Even though we do not have the full conversations between the two men, Comey's apparently dedicated recounting of it, full of Trump-type idioms such as "that thing," and describing the Russia probe as a cloud, seem accurate enough to make an assessment that Trump felt the public should know what he was hearing, that he was not personally under investigation.
"The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren’t investigating him," Comey wrote of a phone call from March 30, described in greater detail below.
What Comey saw as inappropriate requests from the President, could have been due in part to a severe gulf between the two men and their styles (Comey being highly by the book, and always appropriate, and Trump communicating much more with a wink and a nod, even if he is not trying to do anything inappropriate).
It's important to keep in mind that from Trump's point of view, if his associates did anything improper, that it come out and that the investigation be as transparent as possible, , i.e., the American people should be entitled to know just how worried they should be, whether they should have confidence in their President. Which really makes it hard to believe that it would have knocked Comey out too much to issue a statement that Trump was not under investigation, even if, heaven forfend, he might have to "correct the record" later, (which was his stated reason for not ever making an announcement on that).
Regarding loyalty, Comey wrote:
"Near the end of our dinner, the President returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things 4 about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, “I need loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me.” He paused and then said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get that from me.” As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term – honest loyalty – had helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect."
Comey recounted that he also spoke with Trump alone after a February 14 briefing in the Oval Office, and that Trump had brought up Mike Flynn, who had just resigned from being National Security Adviser.
"The President then made a long series of comments about the problem with leaks of classified information – a concern I shared and still share. ... The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, 'He is a good guy and has been through a lot.' He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, 'I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.' I replied only that 'he is a good guy.' (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would 'let this go.'
Comey recounted that the President phoned him twice, once in March and once in April, to ask him to clarify to the American people that he was not personally under investigation.
"He described the Russia investigation as 'a cloud' that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He 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. He asked what we could do to 'lift the cloud.' I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him.
Then the President asked why there had been a congressional hearing about Russia the previous week – at which I had, as the Department of Justice directed, confirmed the investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. I explained the demands from the leadership of both parties in Congress for more information, and that Senator Grassley had even held up the confirmation of the Deputy Attorney General until we briefed him in detail on the investigation. I explained that we had briefed the leadership of Congress on exactly which individuals we were investigating and that we had told those Congressional leaders that we were not personally investigating President Trump. I reminded him I had previously told him that. He repeatedly told me, 'We need to get that fact out.' (I did not tell the President that the FBI and the Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change.)"
On April 11, the President again phoned Comey.
Trump asked what Comey had done to "get out" the fact that he was not personally under investigation.
"I said the White House Counsel should contact the leadership of DOJ to make the request, which was the traditional channel," Comey wrote.
"He said he would do that and added, 'Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.' I did not reply or ask him what he meant by 'that thing.'
Here, Comey seems to go out of his way to portray Trump as a near-caricature, using language like "that thing" and "good guy" and "the cloud." Quoting him directly as "that thing," and then acting like he did not know what Trump was talking about, fits exactly in with Comey's by-the-book concern was well as an emphasis on outward appearances.
When one looks at most of the reporting on Comey's written testimony, it focuses on Trump asking for loyalty but not on Comey saying he would give Trump "honest loyalty." The honest loyalty, Trump accepted. And it's pretty logical to conclude that "that thing" is referring exactly to that: honest loyalty.
In response to "that thing," Comey wrote that he replied: "I said only that the way to handle it was to have the White House Counsel call the Acting Deputy Attorney General. He said that was what he would do and the call ended."
Comey, who obviously has years of legal experience, appears to be going out of his way to stick to the book when it comes to any interaction with President Trump, even though by several bipartisan accounts, he did not go by the book at all when he chose to address the media after deciding not to file charges against former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
"That was the last time I spoke with President Trump” was how Comey concluded his written testimony.
Read the entire opening testimony, expected to be given Thursday in Washington, here.