USA Politics

Comey memo on Flynn probe: Three key questions

Putting it in perspective

The revelation President Trump may have asked ex-FBI Director James Comey to shut down the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn has roiled Washington. What are the relevant questions?

Former FBI Director James Comey arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 3.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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Washington is gripped with the feeling that it may have reached a crucial point in Donald Trump’s presidency following the revelation that Trump may have asked ex-FBI Director James Comey to shut down the federal investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

What this means in terms of concrete action remains unclear. It’s one thing to foresee trouble for the Republican legislative agenda, or a spreading network of investigations of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, including Moscow’s relationship to Mr. Flynn. It’s quite another to predict how these things can actually occur, given the many moving parts that make up the US government.

Further answers to some key questions could well determine the ultimate implications of the Comey revelation:

What did Comey write down? According to multiple news reports, Mr. Comey wrote a memo for the record following a February meeting in the Oval Office with President Trump, saying that Mr. Trump hoped he could let Flynn go because “he is a good guy.” But reporters haven’t seen this memo. Its description is secondhand, via sources. Its actual wording and context could have a powerful effect on public and lawmaker attitudes, one way or the other. It may be exactly as described; it may be less condemnatory than suggested. Comey’s expected public description of his meetings might count, too. In the past he has been a focused and articulate congressional testifier. That can matter.

Are there more memos? As a skilled Washington official, Comey obviously knew to leave a paper trail behind him, both to justify his actions and secure his place for posterity. That’s common at top levels. History belongs to those who shape the material historians study. That means it is almost certain there are more memos, presumably describing all of Comey’s interactions with the president. What do they say? Do they explain why Comey did not immediately push back against Trump’s suggestion regarding Flynn, or make it public? Did he really tell the president he was not a subject of the Russia investigation, as Trump contends? Further revelations could have dire consequences at this point.

WWRD (What will Republicans do)? The airwaves are now crowded with breathless talk about obstruction of justice and Trump’s legal position, but those analyses are beside the point. As a sitting US president Trump’s future is essentially a political question, not a legal one. And the politics in this case are entirely controlled by the GOP, since it controls Congress. There are some indications that Republican lawmakers are now considering an independent investigation of Russia, the 2016 vote, and Trump officials. That would represent a big lurch away from the White House by a group that’s stood by him to this point. Meanwhile, some of Trump’s fiercest critics are talking about impeachment. That just won’t happen as long as Republicans control Congress, absent further (drastic) developments. And Trump’s removal from office following any House impeachment would require a two-thirds Senate vote. That’s an incredibly high threshold in today’s era of polarized American politics, absent further (drastic) developments.

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