After a number of demands from Congress culminating in impeachment threats, the memos-to-file by James Comey from his conversations with Donald Trump are now public. Do they provide evidence of obstruction of justice, a smoking-gun moment that could lead to impeachment or prosecution? Not so much. In fact, Rod Rosenstein’s report that Trump has not become a target in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations might make even more sense now.
About the only real news that comes out of the memos is that Trump had serious reservations about Michael Flynn from the start:
President Trump expressed concerns about the judgment of his national security adviser Michael Flynn weeks before forcing him to resign, according to memos kept by former FBI director James B. Comey that recount in detail efforts by Trump to influence the bureau’s expanding investigation of Russia.
The memos also reveal the extent of Trump’s preoccupation with unproven allegations that he had consorted with prostitutes while in Moscow in 2013. Trump, according to the memos, repeatedly denied the allegations and prodded Comey to help disprove them, while also recalling being told by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia has the most beautiful prostitutes. …
The documents, first published by the Associated Press, provide a significantly more detailed account of those conversations than has previously been revealed through Comey’s contemporaneous records and are largely consistent with his statements before Congress and in his newly published memoir.
In other words, it’s almost entirely old news, except for the fly-on-the-wall perspective they lend to previously sensitive conversations. Of course, these memos are told from Comey’s perspective at the time rather than from the viewpoint of a disinterested observer. They aren’t complete records and neither is Comey’s memoir, Jake Tapper discovered during his interview with Comey yesterday. The former FBI director wrote and has publicly stated that Trump only seemed interested in the “salacious” parts of the Christopher Steele dossier. Tapper got Comey to admit that Trump was only informed of those parts of the dossier, which explains why those got his full attention:
I did not know this fact that @jaketapper got Comey to reveal: When Comey briefed President-elect Trump on dossier, Comey discussed *only* the sex stuff, not other allegations (Manafort, Cohen, etc) that were also in dossier. https://t.co/YSXW8JpQnH pic.twitter.com/iAGUg7a4Vi
— Byron York (@ByronYork) April 20, 2018
Byron York also writes about the newly discovered context stemming from Comey’s memos of the alleged “loyalty” demand from Trump:
Comey’s memo of the meeting — released in the midst of Comey’s publicity tour — does not mention that Trump asked for loyalty. In fact, it notes that Trump said a number of complimentary things about Comey. “He said he thought very highly of me and looked forward to working with me,” Comey wrote. But no talk of loyalty, at least as far as Comey noted.
At Comey’s next meeting with the president, however, on January 28, Trump brought up loyalty, according to the Comey memos. The two men were discussing leaks and how damaging they could be. Comey explained to the president that “the entire government leaks like crazy.” Then Comey wrote that, “[Trump] replied that he needed loyalty and expected loyalty.”
The news of that exchange — leaked by Comey after Trump fired him — spurred widespread outrage over Trump’s mention of loyalty. But the context of Trump’s statement — not known until now — adds to our understanding of the president’s talk.
Why would Trump wonder about the FBI director’s loyalty? Perhaps because in their first meeting, the FBI director dropped the Moscow sex allegation on Trump, followed immediately by its publication in the media. It seems entirely reasonable for a president to wonder what was going on and whether the FBI director was loyal, not to the president personally, but to the confidentiality that is required in his role as head of the nation’s chief investigative agency.
Otherwise, most of this ground has already been plowed. From Comey’s own memo from March 30, 2017, we know that Comey told Trump again that the investigation into Russian interference wasn’t targeting him, even while the Washington Post reported on George Papadopoulos’ activities with Russians that might have had connections to Russian intelligence. Trump encouraged Comey to find out whether “some satellite” to his campaign had crossed the line, which doesn’t exactly sound like a man looking to obstruct justice. This too had been covered in earlier congressional testimony, though.
As for Flynn, he ended up on Trump’s you-know-what list early on. Just eight days after the inauguration, according to Comey’s memo, Trump vented about Flynn’s “judgment” after failing to inform Trump about a call from a foreign leader, which turned out to be Vladimir Putin. The call was to congratulate Trump on taking office, and Flynn’s failure led to an embarrassing misstep with Theresa May:
Foreign leader who called Trump first in Jan. 2017 was Putin, sources say. Flynn did not tell Trump about the call until he was in the middle of lunch with Theresa May, (incorrectly) thanking her for being the first to call. Trump went ballistic. https://t.co/pT9CLXdZWI
— Byron Tau (@ByronTau) April 20, 2018
Trump might have been mightily annoyed at Flynn then, but as of today, Comey’s more in the doghouse:
So General Michael Flynn’s life can be totally destroyed while Shadey James Comey can Leak and Lie and make lots of money from a third rate book (that should never have been written). Is that really the way life in America is supposed to work? I don’t think so!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 20, 2018
That refers to the classified information in Comey’s memos-to-file, some of which has been redacted in the release to Congress. That leads to the question as to whether Comey’s leak to his friend for the purpose of giving information to the press constitutes a violation of the law. Comey had insisted that these were his own material, but a court might well disagree with that, especially with the classified material contained within. Comey has been pretty careful to cover his bases, but the Department of Justice Inspector General might want to take a look into just how well Comey managed that.
Other than the classified information, though, it’s tough to answer this question from my friend and colleague Katie Pavlich:
Very unclear why the FBI had to be threatened with subpoena to turn over Comey memos.
— Katie Pavlich (@KatiePavlich) April 20, 2018
These could have been redacted and transmitted months ago. There’s very little in here that has to do with open and active investigations if anything at all, and these did contain such information, then it shouldn’t have been contained in a memo-to-file in the first place. Almost everything in these memos have been exposed in Comey’s congressional testimony and his memoir. To paraphrase Comey himself, it’s almost all salacious rather than substantial. Nothing in these reflects particularly well on Trump, but it doesn’t do much for Comey’s reputation either.