Trump outmatched, out of element
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump, businessman wheeler-dealer, finds himself out of his league with his current assault on the American system of justice and regard for the law. His modus operandi under the label “the art of the deal” has now come smack up against former FBI Director James Comey’s superior familiarity with his own bailiwick, that of prosecuting “obstruction of justice.”
Trump has already demonstrated his amateur-hour approach to the political realm in many ways. He has consistently served up obvious lies and misrepresentations, like a batting practice pitcher grooving fat ones for teammates to launch into the cheap seats. Most of his curve balls fail to deceive, contributing to his reputation in the White House press corps as a very unartful dodger.
In Jim Comey, a veteran investigator of alleged criminal and political malfeasance for both Republican and Democratic presidents, Trump has picked a genuine heavyweight to fight with, and Comey has already put him on the canvas without delivering a single physical blow. Rather, Comey has set up the presidential blowhard simply by following the standard investigator’s playbook. He went into a dinner meeting with Trump and immediately took down much of what was said. He is now hanging the president with it.
Comey’s notes, in whatever form he took them at that meeting, are now being widely credited as evidence that Trump tried to persuade him to kill the counterintelligence investigation into then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s ties to Russian officials.
The longtime FBI and Justice Department sleuth is celebrated among the cloak-and-dagger set as a smart, careful and prolific note-taker at politically sensitive meetings. So it came as no surprise within the intelligence community that he would put down on paper what was said in a meeting with the president.
Such notes have a long history in cases of alleged obstruction of justice, and have been judged very credible in the government’s quest for convictions. They now loom as a major threat to Flynn, and by extension to Trump for his reported pitch to Comey to give a pass to his friend.
Comey’s notes, now in wide circulation among newspaper and television reporters in Washington, are particularly unambiguous. Of the investigation into Flynn’s ties that eventually led to his firing by Trump, the president is reported to have said to Comey: “I hope you can let this go.”
Those notes, according to several print accounts, indicated Comey didn’t reply to Trump’s “hope,” while agreeing with the president’s comment that Flynn was “a good guy,” arguably not a strong rationale for a federal prosecutor to call off the dogs.
The official White House response said “the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end an investigation involving General Flynn. … This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey.”
But Trump’s track record on taking liberties with the truth is not a strong suit in defense of such exchanges. Trump has seemed to hint he might have a tape recording of the meeting, to which Comey has confidently replied that he hopes so.
Meanwhile, Capitol Hill is alive with high expectations of Comey appearances next week before congressional committee investigations into the Flynn-Russia imbroglio. The additional appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to look into the Russian interference with American presidential politics has already led Trump to call it “the greatest witch hunt” in U.S. history.
All this has generated anxious recollection of the threatened impeachment that drove Richard Nixon from the Oval Office in 1974, also on charges of obstruction of justice, among others.
With the reputation of the Justice Department at risk, as well as his own, Trump appears to have taken two tigers by the tail in Comey and now Mueller. They may prove to be about the most formidable and skillful adversaries this amateur politician from the real-estate world has ever met.
Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.