Actually, he might have. Yesterday’s Times bombshell said it was “unclear” whether anyone at the DOJ knew.
What if he didn’t tell anyone, though? You can understand why he didn’t resign: If he thought a Trump crony would replace him as director, resigning might have made it easier for Trump to thwart the Russia/Flynn investigations, not harder. But why not blow the whistle?
If Comey witnessed an impeachable offense, shouldn't he have said something about it himself–and before being fired?
— Ramesh Ponnuru (@RameshPonnuru) May 16, 2017
The Times had an answer for that in its story yesterday: “Mr. Comey and his aides perceived Mr. Trump’s comments as an effort to influence the investigation, but they decided that they would try to keep the conversation secret — even from the F.B.I. agents working on the Russia investigation — so the details of the conversation would not affect the investigation.” That suggests Comey feared agents would be intimidated if they learned that the president wanted the Flynn probe ended and might go soft on Flynn because of it. But what if Comey had gone public with what Trump allegedly said to him? The resulting outrage might have forced the agents in the Russia probe to dig even deeper, knowing that the public would be scrutinizing their work to see if they bowed to Trump’s wishes by letting Flynn off the hook. The Bureau’s integrity would have been on the line.
Maybe there’s another explanation. I think Josh Barro’s mostly right:
[T]oday the retort is obvious: If Trump wasn’t making a serious effort to obstruct justice [in his conversation with Comey], if he was just engaged in “Oval Office talk” or whatever, then why the hell did this end with him firing the FBI director?
But if Comey had gone public in February, the defense from Republicans would have been that Trump just talks like that, and he wasn’t trying to obstruct justice, and you shouldn’t take him so literally.
And without Trump having taken a concrete step to obstruct justice, such as firing the FBI director, that defense would have worked.
Trump hasn’t actually *done* anything to stop the investigation, Trump’s supporters would have yelled if Comey had gone public with this in February. Now that he’s been fired, Comey can turn around and say oh yes he has. I wonder, in fact, if even Comey doubted whether Trump was guilty of obstruction of justice under the law when they first had this alleged conversation about Flynn in February. The Times story doesn’t claim that Trump threatened him. The threat is implied at best by dint of Trump being Comey’s boss: Let my buddy go or you’ll lose your job and I’ll end the investigation. Comey may have thought Trump’s request was “inappropriate,” which it was, but not intimidating enough to qualify as attempted obstruction, something worth memorializing in a memo but not so brazen that it needed to be reported immediately.
And remember, this chat between them allegedly happened in mid-February, just 24 days into Trump’s term. Comey had briefed Trump during the transition periodically but may have had no real “read” on him yet to know whether he was acting out of ignorance of what’s improper or earnestly, intentionally trying to influence the Flynn probe. (The fact that Trump supposedly asked everyone else to leave the room before raising the matter with Comey doesn’t bode well for Trump’s state of mind.) He may have thought that Trump, as a new president, a first-time public official, and a guy whose grasp on civics often seems … not the best, deserved the benefit of the doubt early on, especially since Comey running to his superiors would have imperiled Trump’s presidency. Give the guy a chance to clean up his act, he may have told himself, and let him figure out that leaning on a deputy to do a favor for your friend may work in New York real-estate circles but not when the deputy is the director of the FBI.
There’s another reason why Comey may have been reluctant to go to the DOJ. Jeff Sessions, one of Trump’s closest allies during the campaign, was confirmed as Attorney General less than a week before the conversation with Trump allegedly happened. Comey may have feared that if he went to Sessions with it, Sessions would have sided with Trump and tried to undermine Comey and/or the investigation. He may not have had a “read” on Sessions’s integrity yet, or at least not enough of one to make him comfortable with disclosing what Trump had said to him. The Times claims that Comey did share his memo at the time with “senior F.B.I. officials,” though, so some important people who work for the Justice Department did know about it. But at the DOJ itself? Unclear.
One more thing. All of this was playing out against the backdrop of Comey having possibly influenced the outcome of a presidential election just three and a half months before. The guy had been pilloried by Democrats for having supposedly derailed a Clinton presidency by sending his eleventh-hour letter to Congress about reopening the Emailgate investigation. Now it’s February and suddenly he has to derail the Trump presidency by running to the DOJ to report something Trump had said to him that may or may not have amounted to a crime? I think “spotlight fatigue” may have encouraged Comey to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on obstruction too. But once he was fired and Trump went on TV to say that his annoyance with the Russia investigation was part of the calculus, he apparently decided he had to act.
The RNC is circulating a clip this morning of Comey’s interim replacement, Andrew McCabe, testifying last week that there’s been no effort to impede the Russia investigation by the White House. That may be evidence that there’s no “Comey memo” after all, or it may be evidence that McCabe wasn’t one of the senior FBI officials who saw Comey’s memo in February. (If he wasn’t, why not?) If there is no memo, though, how come Jim Comey himself hasn’t spoken up to say so over the past 20 hours since the Times’s story was published? Before you say “because he hates Trump and is trying to take him down!”, remember that Comey’s going to be forced to testify and to produce the memo, as are (in all likelihood) the other people at the FBI with whom he allegedly shared it. Unless they’re all prepared to lie brazenly under oath and claim that a memo existed in February that never actually existed, the assumption is that the Times is right and the memo exists. If it doesn’t and Comey is willing to sit quietly as this chaos plays out without correcting the record until he eventually testifies, he’s going to destroy the credibility he needs to win a “whom do you believe?” contest with Trump.
Here’s the McCabe clip, followed by a bit from CBS citing sources at the FBI who claim they experienced unusual interference on the Russia probe without specifying how.
Reminder: FBI Director McCabe said last week there was "No Effort To Impede” FBI Investigation From White House. pic.twitter.com/MOwKgEIVVb
— GOP (@GOP) May 17, 2017
— CBS News (@CBSNews) May 17, 2017
Update: A Twitter pal calls my attention to a detail in WaPo’s write-up of Comey’s memo but not in the Times’s:
Details of Comey’s notes have been shared with a very small circle of people at the FBI and Justice Department, these people said.