The United States government cannot be trusted so long as Donald Trump runs it.
That is the simple, chilling takeaway of James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. It is separate from the legal question of whether Trump obstructed justice, or the political question of whether congressional Republicans care even if he did.
The picture Comey paints of Trump is also, importantly, the picture Trump paints of himself: He is a man who lies constantly, who values loyalty over integrity, who has little understanding of nor respect for the values and restraints that people in power impose on themselves to keep from misusing their positions, and who intends to use both his powers of hiring and firing to stock the government with people who will serve him first and the country second.
And this man is the president of the United States of America.
The consequences of Trump’s behavior, ironically, are most clearly seen in the parts of Comey’s testimony that the president’s defenders are touting. Take Comey’s exchange with Sen. Marco Rubio. Rubio asked about Trump’s request that Comey end the investigation into Michael Flynn. If that request was so offensive, Rubio demanded, why didn’t Comey respond more forcefully?
RUBIO: At the time, did you say something to the president about, that is not an appropriate request, or did you tell the White House counsel, it's not an appropriate request? Someone needs to tell the president he can't do these things.
COMEY: I didn't, no.
COMEY: I don't know. I think — as I said earlier, I think the circumstances were such that it was — I was a bit stunned and didn't have the presence of mind. I don't know. I don't want to make you sound like I'm captain courageous. I don't know if I would have said to the president with the presence of mind, “Sir, that's wrong.” In the moment, it didn't come to my mind. What came to my mind is, “Be careful what you say.” I said, “I agree, Flynn is a good guy.”
Comey made a similar point under questioning by Sen. Dianne Feinstein:
FEINSTEIN: Now, here's the question, you're big. You're strong. I know the Oval Office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn't you stop and say, “Mr. President, this is wrong.” There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn't you stop and say, “Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you.”
COMEY: It's a great question. Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in. The only thing I could think to say, because I was playing in my mind — because I could remember every word he said — I was playing in my mind, what should my response be? That's why I very carefully chose the words. Look, I've seen the tweet about tapes. Lordy, I hope there are tapes. I remember saying, “I agree he is a good guy,” as a way of saying, I'm not agreeing with what you asked me to do. Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance. That's how conducted myself. I hope I'll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.
Republicans have taken this as important to Trump’s defense. The reasoning, as I understand it, is that if Trump’s request of Comey was so egregious, then how come Comey didn’t tell Trump it was so egregious, or quit on the spot? You can see Trump’s son making a version of this argument on Twitter:
So if he was a "Stronger guy" he might have actually followed procedure & the law? You were the director of the FBI, who are you kidding?— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) June 8, 2017
Here is another way to understand this story. James Comey was the director of the FBI. He was elevated to that position precisely because he had proven himself unusually able to resist political intimidation. As director of the FBI, he had a 10-year term designed to grant him independence, he led an agency with a proud culture of resisting outside interference, and he was exposed, daily, to the most unnerving secrets and profound threats that face the country.
In other words, Comey was, for reasons both of personality and position, one of the hardest civil servants to intimidate. But when trapped in a room with the president of the United States, and when his job and all the good he believed he could do in it was dangled before him, even he felt the pressure. To his credit, he didn’t crack. But he felt it, just as Trump knew he would.
Comey’s candidly self-critical answers about reluctance say No to a president exactly demonstrates the risk to free institutions from Trump— David Frum (@davidfrum) June 8, 2017
This story is not exculpatory for Trump. It is damning for him, and unnerving for us. It is a reminder of how much harm the wrong man can do if he wields the power and prestige of the presidency unethically. And there is no doubt that Trump is wielding the power and prestige of the presidency unethically.
The picture Comey paints of Trump is grim — and so is the picture Trump paints of himself
Early in the hearing, Sen. Mark Warner asked Comey why he began taking notes on his meetings with Trump, which Comey said he didn’t do after his meetings with Presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
Comey replied that his meetings with Trump were particularly concerning for three reasons. First, Trump repeatedly tried to meet with Comey alone, a breach of protocol that unnerved the FBI chief. Second, Trump wanted to discuss unusually sensitive topics. Third, Comey said, “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting.”
Stop and consider Comey’s estimation for a moment. A longtime prosecutor, Justice Department official, and eventually FBI chief, Comey thought he couldn’t trust the president of the United States of America to meet with him without lying. And of course, Trump couldn’t. Trump lies constantly. And Comey was proven right in his particular case, as Trump has repeatedly lied about him.
Trump initially had his White House say Comey was fired over his handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails, only to later admit Comey was fired over the Russia investigation, only to later say it was actually the emails. Trump has said he may release tapes of his conversations with Comey — tapes he clearly doesn’t have (“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said today). Trump repeatedly told Comey he was doing a great job only to turn around and tell the country he was doing a horrible job.
Put aside where you think the truth lies in any of these judgments. The simple fact is the president of the United States lies routinely, about matters big and small. He lies about the size of his Electoral College victory. He lies about whether he’ll cut Medicaid. He is a liar.
Similarly, the picture Comey paints of Trump is consistent with the picture Trump has painted of himself over the years. Asked what qualities he looks for in new hires, Trump replied, “The thing that’s most important to me is loyalty.” This is a bizarre statement. Ask most corporate executives to name the quality most important in new hires and they will say work ethic, or creativity, or brilliance, or persistence. “Loyalty” is the quality most prized by mafia dons, not managers.
But this preference of Trump’s runs deep. In an extraordinary passage in The Art of the Deal, Trump, praising his mentor Roy Cohn, explicitly honors those who place loyalty over integrity:
Just compare that with all the hundreds of “respectable” guys who make careers out of boasting about their uncompromising integrity but have absolutely no loyalty. They only care about what’s best for them and don’t think twice about stabbing a friend in the back if the friend becomes a problem. What I liked most about Roy Cohn was that he would do just the opposite.
This is the context in which to read Comey’s prepared testimony, which includes a darkly comic sequence in which Trump says, “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.” Comey, in an effort to defuse Trump’s request, says, “You will always get honesty from me.” Trump, unwilling to let Comey leave without pledging some kind of loyalty, turns it back on him. “That’s what I want, honest loyalty,” he says.
Comey awkwardly agreed to Trump’s formulation, but, as Peter Beinart writes, these two ideas, as Trump well knows, are in tension. “If honesty means being true to oneself, loyalty means being true to others, even it that requires subordinating what you believe is right. Your best friend cheats on a test and your teacher asks whether she did it. The honest answer is yes. The loyal answer is no.”
There is no doubt which answer Trump wanted from Comey, and after realizing he wasn’t going to get it, Trump fired Comey. It is the height of naïveté to believe this same story isn’t playing out elsewhere in Trump’s administration, or to believe that every public servant Trump tries to intimidate will fare as well, or have as much integrity, as Comey.
Donald Trump’s behavior casts a shadow over everyone who serves him
Imagine that it wasn’t Comey who Trump had invited to dinner, but a candidate for the FBI directorship who shared Trump’s values, and was more focused on his advancement than his integrity. Imagine that Trump asked for loyalty and this person immediately agreed to it. In that case, we might never know the conversation had happened, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation would now be serving Trump, rather than the American people.
Perhaps we don’t have to imagine. That scenario might be playing out right now. On Wednesday, Trump nominated Christopher Wray to replace James Comey as FBI director. Wray is arguably qualified — he led the criminal division of the Justice Department under George W. Bush. But as Matthew Yglesias wrote, Wray “has one critically disqualifying attribute — he interviewed for the job with Trump, and Trump decided he wanted to appoint him. That means of all the reasonably well-qualified candidates out there, Wray is the one who struck Trump as having the least integrity and the most inclination to display personal loyalty to him.”
Is this fair to Wray? Perhaps not. But this is the cloud of suspicion all governmental decisions and appointments will be under so long as Trump is president. We know Trump holds an office that gives him vast power for intimidation, patronage, and reprisal. We know he is a man who will use that power to serve his own ends. We know the people who survive in Trump’s employ will be those who carry out Trump’s commands. We know he is a man who will fire those, like Comey, who refuse his requests.
In the American system, the presidency is an office bounded by constitutional limits and competing institutions, but it is just as importantly bounded by the morality and personal rectitude of whomever occupies it. The power to use the executive branch to intimidate and to extract vengeance, alongside the power to pardon, means a president of poor moral character could do enormous harm. There was little doubt, before Comey’s presentation, that Trump was of poor moral character, but there is no doubt after it.
Trump’s advocates have retreated to lines of defense that, in normal times, would be considered damning condemnations. Trump, they say, was too naive to know the impropriety of what he was asking, and his presidency must be policed by staffers willing to regularly confront him over his unethical demands — even if that means they lose their jobs and anger a leader who values loyalty above all.
The US government has many dedicated and brave public servants, and some of them will do exactly that. But that is a poor foundation on which to base a presidency, and it leaves the public ignorant of whether the president has been quietly curbed, or whether his staff has backed down, and so his presidency is out of control.
This is day 139 of Donald Trump’s administration, and it is clear that he is dangerously unfit for the role. The question is whether Republicans will admit it to themselves, and if so, what they will do about it. I would ask Republicans reading this piece to imagine the word “Trump” replaced with “Clinton” or “Obama.” How would they feel? How afraid would they be? That is how they should feel now. The country needs more from them right now than excuses for behavior that they know is wrong.