When James Comey takes the stand tomorrow, he may have a little more explaining to do than some realize. The New York Times buries the lead in this story, as did CBS News, both of which emphasize the discomfort James Comey had in meeting with Donald Trump — so much so that he asked Jeff Sessions to act as his wingman. However, Comey apparently didn’t trust Sessions enough to explain why. Nor did Comey take his concerns to anyone at the Department of Justice, despite earlier reporting from the Washington Post:
Mr. Comey believed Mr. Sessions should protect the F.B.I. from White House influence, the officials said, and pulled him aside after a meeting in February to tell him that private interactions between the F.B.I. director and the president were inappropriate. But Mr. Sessions could not guarantee that the president would not try to talk to Mr. Comey alone again, the officials said.
Mr. Comey did not reveal, however, what had so unnerved him about his Oval Office meeting with the president: Mr. Trump’s request that the F.B.I. director end the investigation into the former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, who had just been fired. By the time Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey last month, Mr. Comey had disclosed the meeting to a few of his closest advisers but nobody at the Justice Department, according to the officials, who did not want to be identified discussing Mr. Comey’s interactions with Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions.
Three weeks ago, the Post reported that Comey had shared his specific concerns about the conversation with Trump to at least a few DoJ officials:
Details of Comey’s notes have been shared with a very small circle of people at the FBI and Justice Department, these people said.
Granted, Comey hasn’t been telling this story directly over the past three weeks or so, but it seems to be changing — and not in a good way for his credibility. If Comey was disturbed by Trump’s conversation to the point of insisting on Sessions’ attendance in meetings, why didn’t he explain the reason for that discomfort? On top of that, Comey’s insistence on Sessions attendance in meetings where the Russia probe was certain to come up might have created grave issues for Sessions, who had pledged to recuse himself from the probe altogether, including the Michael Flynn investigation. It would have been improper for Sessions to take part in such discussions, which should have required an extraordinary explanation from Comey to justify this request.
Even if Comey did tell others at the FBI that Trump was trying to pressure him on the Flynn probe, the lack of notice to his boss at the DoJ is going to look pretty bad under these circumstances. Vox today identifies three of Comey’s associates that could testify to that pressure, but their story lacks any source indicating that they will:
Those three officials, according to two people with detailed, firsthand knowledge of the matter, were Jim Rybicki, Comey’s chief of staff and senior counselor; James Baker, the FBI’s general counsel; and Andrew McCabe, then the bureau’s deputy director, and now the acting director, following Trump’s firing of Comey last month. Comey spoke to them within two days of his Oval conversation with Trump, the sources said, and recounted the president’s comments about the Flynn investigation.
The White House and Trump have categorically denied Comey’s account, which Comey reportedly detailed in his own notes shortly after his encounter with Trump. Thus far, the allegation has played as a he-said, she-said between the president and the director he abruptly removed.
That no longer appears to be the case — it will be Trump’s word versus the word of Comey and at least three other leaders of the FBI.
The FBI officials, identified here for the first time, could now emerge as corroborating witnesses for Comey’s story, both in the public debate and in the criminal investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Could, but as noted above, there’s nothing in the Vox article to say they will. It’s an entirely speculative article that only adds the names into the mix. McCabe’s testifying today on Capitol Hill, Vox notes, but McCabe will have the same credibility issues Comey has in claiming extraordinary pressure — plus another, having not been a direct witness to any alleged pressure. McCabe apparently didn’t report it either, and he also already testified a month ago that “there has been no effort to impede our investigation to date.”
In my column for The Week, I highlight the credibility question for Comey:
Comey might have to field some uncomfortable questions, especially if he now characterizes the February meeting with Trump and his own later firing as an attempt at obstruction of justice. After all, Comey testified to Congress a week before his termination that he had never been pressured to end an investigation for political purposes, almost three months after the Trump meeting took place. Why didn’t he report it at the time, or when he first got fired, rather than waiting for the invitation from the committee to testify?
Unfortunately for Comey, he dissipated his credibility with both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill during the FBI probe into Hillary Clinton. He outraged Democrats by publicly characterizing the conclusions of the investigation, and angered Republicans by not pursuing a prosecution over the secret email system and the serial mishandling of classified data. Having already done that once, Comey did it all over again just days before the election in a move which Democrats insist cost them the presidential election. And just before he was fired, Comey defended all of those actions, leading some Democrats in Congress to call for his termination. …
The Senate Judiciary Committee recently sent Comey a letter requesting answers to seven questions related to his meeting with Trump, along with any memos he wrote contemporaneously to record the contents of their conversation and any other such memos written after meetings with then-President Barack Obama and officials at the Department of Justice. According to online news site Circa, Comey politely declined to answer those questions on the basis of now being a “private citizen.” If that’s true, some on the Intelligence Committee might question why Comey wants to talk to them about Trump but not to the Judiciary Committee.
They’ll certainly be interested in his attempts to draft Sessions as a wingman while keeping him in the dark as to why. Don’t expect tomorrow to be all peaches and cream for the former FBI director.