Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on Thursday about his interactions with President Trump riveted Washington like no such congressional appearance in decades. Yet in some ways Mr. Comey’s words were just the opening scene in a lengthy legal drama to come. Trump himself tweeted on Friday morning that he feels “totally vindicated” by Comey’s admission that he did tell the president on a number of occasions that Trump personally was not then a target of an FBI counter-terrorism investigation.
Trump and his surrogates moved to attack Comey as a “leaker” for the latter’s admission that he’d orchestrated the appearance of a New York Times story on memos he’d written following White House meetings. The Trump administration now faces a grinding investigation by Justice Department special counsel Robert Muller that will likely last years and could slow progress on the GOP legislative agenda. Comey, before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, previewed some of the most important themes likely to surface in this probe.
Trump’s behavior in pushing for an end to the FBI inquiry of fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, as outlined by the ex-FBI chief, might constitute obstruction of justice. Mr. Flynn and other top Trump officials, given Comey’s allegations, could be in deep trouble for their dealings with Russia and other matters.
Here are three questions raised by the day’s events:
HOW WILL DIFFERENT ACCOUNTS BE RECONCILED? Comey laid out his description of a number of key interactions with Trump. Trump’s response, via his lawyer’s statement and his Friday morning tweet, has been to call their veracity into question. For Trump, the problem here is that Comey testified in public, under oath, about what on their face appear to be Trump efforts to influence FBI actions. To charge him with lying is to charge him with perjury. This begs follow-up. Special counsel Mueller will now certainly want to interview Trump himself, under oath, in some venue. Will that occur?
WILL OTHER REPUBLICANS FOLLOW TRUMP’S DEFENSE LEAD? In the wake of the hearing, Trump’s personal lawyer issued a statement insisting that the president had never asked Comey for “loyalty,” as Comey said he did. The statement held that other things Comey said weren’t true, either. But Senate Republicans at the Intelligence Committee hearing appeared to largely accept the validity of Comey’s words. They picked instead, via lawyerly parsing, at whether Trump really meant to shut down the Flynn investigation. Other Congressional GOP leaders were similarly reticent to attack. Increasingly there seems to be a split in the party over continued defense of Trump’s behavior. After all, Thursday’s hearing was called by the Republican chairman of a GOP-led panel in a Republican-led Senate. Will the administration be able to lead a unified Trump defense?
WHO ELSE IS IN TROUBLE? Comey’s words – and, at times, his lack of words – may indicate trouble for people other than the president. Under questioning from Democratic Senators, he declined to answer “in open session” whether there were more unacknowledged meetings between Trump officials and Russian counterparts. That’s a hint there may indeed be more such meetings. In general, Comey’s account cast doubt on whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions had truly recused himself from anything dealing with Russia. And it raised questions about Obama administration Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who requested that Comey call his probe of Hillary Clinton’s emails a “matter,” not an “investigation.”