Comey memo triggers new Trump crisis
Donald Trump’s presidency faced its gravest crisis yet with the allegation this week that he asked then–FBI Director James Comey to shut down the federal investigation into Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser. “He is a good guy,” the president told Comey, according to a leaked memo written by the FBI director immediately after the encounter. “I hope you can let this go.” That request—which some legal experts say could lead to obstruction of justice charges and possible impeachment— took place in the Oval Office on the day after Flynn resigned for misleading the administration about his contact with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. In his memo, Comey wrote that Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions out of the room before urging the FBI director to drop the investigation. White House officials said Comey’s memo was “not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation.”
But in response to growing political pressure, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein named former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special prosecutor to take over the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia’s hacking of the Clinton campaign. Rosenstein said “unique circumstances’’ required him to hand off the investigation to “a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.’’ Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the scandal was now of a “Watergate size and scale,” while Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) said the allegations, if true, were grounds for impeachment. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the country was “being tested in unprecedented ways,” and warned his fellow senators that “history is watching.”
Last week, Trump flatly contradicted his aides’ earlier claims that he had fired Comey as the result of a recommendation the Justice Department. The president told NBC News he was going to fire Comey—whom he described as a “showboater”—regardless of the recommendation, in part because he believed “this Russia thing” was a “made-up story.” When sources close to Comey revealed that Trump had asked for the FBI director’s “loyalty” during a meeting in January, the president tweeted that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations.”
What the editorials said
“When will Republicans in Congress decide that enough is enough?” asked The New York Times. Trump’s attempt to quash a federal investigation into Flynn—one that could still “reach into the highest levels of his campaign and administration”—constitutes a gross abuse of executive power. It’s time for congressional Republicans to finally put country above party and stop defending Trump.
Trump “needs to realize how close he is” to losing congressional Republicans’ support, said The Wall Street Journal. “Weeks of pointless melodrama” have halted all the momentum on health-care and tax-reform legislation, leaving lawmakers exhausted and deeply frustrated. If they decide that Trump “looks like a liability” to their re-election chances in 2018, they’ll “drift away,” and his presidency will “sink before his eyes.”
What the columnists said
Comey’s memo isn’t a smoking gun—it’s “a gun without powder,” said Gregg Jarrett in FoxNews.com. If the attentionseeking G-man really thought Trump was trying to “obstruct justice,” he was legally required to report it immediately. He didn’t, because he knew Trump’s “vague” and “ambiguous” language wasn’t specific enough to constitute obstruction of justice. If the conversation was so innocent, said Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post, why did Trump order everyone else out of the Oval Office? His attempt to pressure the FBI director to drop an investigation into a top aide became even more “sinister” when he fired Comey himself over the broader investigation into his campaign. “The lawyers can debate whether this satisfies the technical elements of obstruction”—but it’s pretty clear to the rest of us.
Trump’s presidency is “on the verge of collapse,” said David Graham in TheAtlantic.com. Legal scholars say that if Comey’s memo is accurate, Trump committed obstruction of justice—one of the charges in Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment, and the central charge that forced Richard Nixon to resign in 1974. The threat to Trump’s presidency is grave: “Investigations, once begun, tend to snowball.”
The special prosecutor was a necessity, said Page Pate in CNN.com. Now that Trump has evidently tampered with an investigation, fired the FBI director, and pressured Justice Department officials to cover for him, only a totally independent special prosecutor can provide Americans with assurance the full truth will be revealed. “Careful what you wish for,” said David Frum in TheAtlantic.com. Special prosecutors set out to find evidence of crimes and often take years to complete their secretive work. The most pressing question about Russia’s meddling in our election—and whether the Trump campaign colluded in it—is: “What happened?” An independent commission like the one that investigated 9/11 would be better suited to answer that question.
Trump’s loyal base won’t give up on him because of the Comey memo, said Jonathan Tobin in NationalReview.com. As a result, congressional Republicans will keep looking for excuses to defend Trump—but they cannot “go on like this indefinitely.” If Republicans give up any hope that “Trump can successfully govern” and decide he’s an impediment to their agenda—that’ll be the real “tipping point.”
Illustration by Howard McWilliam. Cover photos from Getty (2), AP