THE BIG IDEA: A Washington Post/ABC News poll in late April found that 81 percent of Republicans think President Trump is honest and trustworthy – compared to 38 percent of Americans overall and 34 percent of independents. In the spring of 2016, not long before he secured the GOP nomination, just 46 percent of self-identified Republicans said Trump is honest and trustworthy. Immediately after the convention in Cleveland, that popped to 69 percent and continued to rise after his November victory.
Besides becoming their party’s standard bearer, what specifically has Trump done in the past 15 months to persuade one in three Republicans who thought he was dishonest that he can now be trusted?
The knee-jerk reaction to James Comey’s very credible and very serious allegations yesterday, which the former FBI director made under oath and has contemporaneous notes to back up, is the strongest proof point yet of the rising tribalism that has infected our politics.
We saw a similar dynamic two weeks ago when many GOP apparatchiks rallied to the defense of Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte after he physically assaulted a reporter.
And it has not stopped at the water’s edge. When Barack Obama was president, a Post-ABC poll found that only 22 percent of Republicans supported missile strikes against Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against civilians. After Trump did it, 86 percent of Republicans supported strikes for the exact same reason.
It’s easy to forget amidst the donnybrook, but Comey has been a card-carrying Republican virtually all of his life. George W. Bush appointed him as a U.S. attorney and, later, deputy attorney general. He was a hero on the right when he rebuked Hillary Clinton as “extremely careless” last summer, but attitudes have shifted now that he’s going after Trump. A Post-ABC poll conducted this week found that just 27 percent of Americans believe Trump fired Comey “for the good of the country.” But 71 percent of Republicans did.
We’ll know soon if the hearing moves the numbers, but don’t hold your breath. Joe Heim interviewed a couple from Florida watching in the bar at Trump’s D.C. hotel. “I’m sticking by his side to the end,” said Scott Cowpland, 61. “If he wants loyalty, he’s got our loyalty,” added Ann Mytnik, 56.
— Trump this morning reacted to Comey’s testimony by calling him a liar:
Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication…and WOW, Comey is a leaker!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 9, 2017
— Sometimes it feels like the president’s M.O. is: I know what you are, but what am I? When someone attacks him for something, he quite often lobs the same charge right back at who he perceives to be the accuser. Recall how Trump started talking about Bill Clinton’s infidelity last October after he got caught on tape boasting about being able to get away with groping women because he’s a celebrity. Then he appropriated the term “fake news” after the election.
— Comey – fired one month ago today – repeatedly called the president a liar as he fielded questions for more than 2 ½ hours from senators on the Intelligence Committee.
- On why he agreed to testify: “The administration … chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple.”
- On why he took detailed notes: “I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document.”
- “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said in the most memorable sound bite of the day. “If there are tapes, it’s not just my word against his … All I can do is hope. The president surely knows whether he taped me. … Release all the tapes!”
— Trump has long been adept at muddying the waters by employing the crisis management playbook that he learned from Joseph McCarthy’s protégé Roy Cohn. The difference this time: He can count on the official Republican Party apparatus to do his bidding.
The Republican National Committee deployed a whopping 60 staff members as part of its rapid-response “war room” effort to counter-punch at Comey, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“The RNC’s output was punchy, snarky and at times contradictory,” David Weigel reports. “It neatly captured the fog of confusion that the president’s defenders wanted to churn.”
Even Trump’s former political opponents, including Marco Rubio and John McCain, acted sort of like his political defense team, Paul Kane writes.
Many other Republican lawmakers simply dismissed Comey’s testimony as a nothing-burger. The best quote illustrating this comes from Politico’s Burgess Everett: “I never did think it was going to amount to much, because first of all there’s nothing there,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told reporters. “But people around here just love to make something out of nothing and that’s basically what you have there. Tell me otherwise.” Then Hatch added: “Of course, I haven’t been in the hearing.” Let that sink in: Hatch did not watch the hearing, yet he said it proved “there’s nothing there.”
— Rather than directly challenge Comey’s version of events, the Republican leadership team in Congress decided to defend what he described as the mere fumbling of an inexperienced politician. “The president’s new at this,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said at a press conference. “He’s new to government, and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between the DOJ, FBI and White House. He’s just new to this.” (Mike DeBonis rounds up several quotes like this.)
That defense just doesn’t pass the smell test. Trump, 70, has been dealing with the federal government since the Justice Department came after him four decades ago for allegedly discriminating against African Americans at his rental properties. He’s also earned a reputation as one of the most litigious people in the business world. (The Boston Globe’s Matt Viser has more illustrations of why “Trump is no naif.”)
— Legal experts, meanwhile, said Comey’s testimony clarified and bolstered the case that the president obstructed justice, Matt Zapotosky reports.
— But sitting presidents do not get indicted on obstruction-of-justice charges. It is Congress that must ultimately determine if his behavior deserves impeachment.
— There is a chicken-egg dynamic at play. Most rank-and-file Republicans look to their party leaders for cues about what to believe, but these same lawmakers are waiting on the base of the party to turn on Trump before they find the “courage” to say publicly what many of them already believe privately.
— This window-dressing is unlikely to change until members of Congress conclude that the cost of standing with Trump exceeds the risk of defending him. Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said during a private appearance last week that the president could cost her party the House. “Any Republican member of Congress, you are going down with the ship,” McSally warned, according to the Tucson Weekly. “And we’re going to hand the gavel to (Nancy) Pelosi in 2018. They only need 28 seats and the path to that gavel being handed over is through my seat. And right now, it doesn’t matter that it’s me, it doesn’t matter what I’ve done. I have an ‘R’ next to my name and, right now, this environment would have me not prevail.”
— Erick Erickson warns his fellow Republicans that their blind loyalty to Trump is going to damage the party bigly in the long-term. “If your goal is to stop the left, all Trump is doing is both emboldening them and driving independent voters to them,” he explains in a new piece for The Resurgent. “Soon he will be a catalyst for a leftwing resurgence if Republicans do not sort this out themselves.”
— The challenge for the politicians who would like to make a break is that Trump supporters who dwell in the alternative-reality fever swamps of the Internet were thrilled by the hearing, which they believe somehow offered total vindication of their president. This, for example, was posted unironically by a leading purveyor of pro-Trump conspiracy theories:
👏 👏 👏
— Mike Cernovich (@Cernovich) June 8, 2017
WHY THE CREDIBILITY GAP MATTERS:
— Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, released a statement after Comey’s testimony saying that the president “never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone.” He also denied that Trump ever asked Comey for “loyalty” in “form or substance.” But Kasowitz refused to answer any questions.
— “I can definitely say the president is not a liar,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders added during her afternoon briefing.
This quote is certain to become infamous. “Such protestations from any White House are never a good thing,” Todd Purdum writes for Politico Magazine. “See Richard Nixon’s, ‘I am not a crook,’ and Bill Clinton’s, ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,’ just for starters.”
Analysts are ridiculing Sanders’s declaration. From GOP messaging guru Frank Luntz:
“The President is not a liar” is almost as bad as Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”
Bad language. Bad strategy. https://t.co/HhFbWQB95q
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) June 8, 2017
A Florida Republican strategist:
Donald Trump could kill and eat a small child on the White House lawn and he would not be impeached be this Congress https://t.co/Ce6OATN0NS
— Rick Wilson (@TheRickWilson) June 8, 2017
The director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics:
The chances that Comey is telling the truth and Trump has lied are close to 100%. Partisanship shouldn’t blind people to the obvious.
— Larry Sabato (@LarrySabato) June 8, 2017
— The problem for the president is that he shortsightedly chose to squander his credibility on both mountains and molehills, from falsely accusing Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower to inflating the size of his inauguration crowd. And now it’s lost.
— The Post’s nonpartisan Fact Checkers have documented 623 false and misleading claims made by Trump during his first 137 days in office. The team has just produced a video juxtaposing Comey and Trump’s conflicting public statements about their interactions.
— In the eyes of every serious journalist covering the White House, Trump and his team lost the presumption of truthfulness long ago. There has been a near-weekly cycle of Trump shifting his story and contradicting his own staff:
- When he fired Comey, of course, the White House announced that it was because of the director’s mishandling of the Hillary email investigation and based entirely on a memo that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had written. “It was all him,” Sean Spicer said. Then Trump went on TV to say, actually, the Russia investigation was on his mind when he fired Comey and volunteered that he was going to fire Comey before asking Rosenstein to draft a justification.
- When The Post reported that the president divulged highly classified material to the Russians, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster categorically denied it: “I was in the room. It didn’t happen.” The very next morning, Trump admitted the story was true and said he had “the absolute right” to share whatever he wants.
— Before he became president, Trump himself even boasted about playing fast and loose with the truth. “The final key to the way I promote is bravado,” he explained in “The Art of the Deal.” “I play to people’s fantasies. … A little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.”
HOW THE COMEY NEWS IS PLAYING:
This is the cover of one of Trump’s hometown newspapers:
Well now pic.twitter.com/fD2mOTOAW2
— Evan Smith (@evanasmith) June 9, 2017
This is the cover of next week’s New Yorker:
— “For his performance of a lifetime, [Comey] decided to play two roles at once: The prototypical G-man, always on the straight and narrow, dedicated only to truth and justice, and the aggrieved victim of an undisciplined, line-crossing president,” our Marc Fisher observes in a thoughtful review. “In both roles, the play ends with Comey … in a new and uncomfortable place — as the whistleblower, warning the nation about a president who schemes, lies and seeks to corrupt public servants under the guise of loyalty…
“Comey was a little bit Jimmy Stewart, sprinkling his answers with aw-shucks modesty,” Marc adds. “And he was a little bit John Dean, not quite declaring a cancer on the presidency but pronouncing himself very much ‘shocked and troubled’ by what he perceived as Trump’s repeated efforts to get him to ease off the FBI’s investigation … As in the legendary ‘Saturday Night Live’ bit about the miracle product Shimmer, which turns out to be both a floor wax and a dessert topping, Comey decided to play both roles.”
— “It has been many years since a witness appeared on Capitol Hill and put a president in such potential jeopardy,” writes Dan Balz, The Post’s chief correspondent, in a smart take. “The investigation is far from its conclusion and, as with so much about the probe, the evidence is murky or disputable. But for the president and his White House … this was not a good day.”
On the front page of the New York Times, Peter Baker calls it “the most damning j’accuse moment by a senior law enforcement official against a president in a generation.”
“Comey emerged as a superb institutionalist, a man who believes we are a nation of laws,” adds columnist David Brooks. “Trump emerged as a tribalist and a clannist, who simply cannot understand the way modern government works.”
— “This is nowhere near the end of the investigation,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said after the hearing.
— “The most important takeaway from Comey’s testimony may be what he didn’t say,” Eugene Robinson writes in his column. “Topics he scrupulously avoided may give a hint of where the investigation is headed. He declined, for example, to answer a question in open session about Vnesheconombank (VEB), a Russian government-owned development bank linked to President Vladimir Putin. Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met last year with VEB executives.”
— The Senate Intelligence Committee expects Jared Kushner to meet with committee staffers this month, two sources familiar with the planning told NBC News last night. A third source familiar with the conversations added that discussions about timing are still ongoing.
— Members of both parties want to see copies of Comey’s contemporaneous memos.
— Whether there are tapes has become more significant than ever. “I have no idea,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during the White House briefing when asked if there are tapes. Asked to look into it, she was flip: “Sure, I’ll try to look under the couches.”
— If it turns out there were tapes, and Trump destroyed them, that could constitute a smoking gun of obstruction. It would also represent a tacit confession that Comey’s testimony is accurate.
JEFF SESSIONS MAY BE IN REAL TROUBLE:
— Yesterday’s hearing raised a host of new questions about the sitting attorney general’s truthfulness, judgment and contacts with the Russians.
This was very cryptic: “Comey said that the bureau had information about Sessions — before he recused himself from overseeing the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — that would have made it ‘problematic’ for him to be involved in the probe,” Sari Horwitz reports. “Comey would not provide details of what information the FBI had.”
Based on Russian-to-Russian intercepts, Comey told members of the Intelligence committee during a classified afternoon session that Sessions may have had a third unreported interaction with Sergey Kislyak, per CNN. (The AG’s spokeswoman denies such an encounter, but remember that they were not forthcoming about the first two meetings…)
Comey said during the open portion of the hearing that it is “a reasonable question” as to why Sessions, who has recused himself from the Russia investigation, was involved in his firing when Trump admits publicly that he acted because of the Russia investigation.
The fired director also said he believes Sessions knew better than to leave him alone with Trump in the Oval Office on Feb. 14. “My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn’t be leaving, which is why he was lingering,” Comey said.
It was during the subsequent conversation that the president allegedly said this:
“I took it as a direction,” Comey explained yesterday. “I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying, ‘I hope’ this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.” If there was nothing improper about it, Comey wondered, “Why did he kick everyone out of the Oval Office?”
After that meeting, Comey said he told Sessions that he did not want to be alone anymore with Trump and “it can’t happen that you get kicked out of the room and the president talks to me.” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) asked Comey how the attorney general responded. “I have a recollection of him just kind of looking at me,” he replied. “I kind of got — his body language gave me the sense like, ‘What am I going to do?’ . . . He didn’t say anything.” Ian Prior, the Justice Department spokesman, disputed that account and said that Comey told Sessions that he “wanted to ensure that he and his FBI staff were following proper communications protocol with the White House.”
— Sessions will appear next Tuesday before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee to discuss his department’s budget request – and will be pressed by Democrats to clear things up under oath. But the real test will be when he next appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of his agency.
— To be sure, Loretta Lynch also came off very badly yesterday. But she’s no longer the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. “At one point, the attorney general had directed me not to call it an investigation, but instead to call it a matter, which confused me and concerned me,” Comey said, adding that this wording “gave the impression that (she) was looking to align the way we talked about our work with the way the campaign” was messaging about it. “That was inaccurate,” he added. “That gave me a queasy feeling.”
IS THERE ANY CHANCE THIS IS ACTUALLY A COINCIDENCE?
— Comey’s timeline is problematic for Trump in many ways that we plan to unpack in coming editions of the 202, but here’s an important angle that has not gotten enough attention yet:
Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates disclosed under oath last month that, on the morning of Jan. 26th, she unambiguously warned White House Counsel Donald McGahn that the national security adviser was “compromised by the Russians” and “could be blackmailed.” Worried about the danger from within, Yates said she moved with great “urgency.” In a secure room, she revealed that Vice President Pence and other White House officials were making false statements to the public. She said she does not know what McGahn did with that information, and McGahn has declined to answer.
Yesterday, Comey testified that Trump called him up at his desk around lunchtime the very next day and asked him to come over for a one-on-one dinner a few hours later. Comey recalled that he needed to break a date with his wife in order to swing it. Trump then began the meal by asking if he wanted to remain as FBI director, which Comey found odd because the president “had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to.” “The dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship,” Comey said, explaining why this was concerning.
Flynn stayed on for 17 more days.
— Comey said he has “no doubt” Russian government officials were directly behind the hacking of the DNC and others – something Trump remains reluctant to take seriously or, frankly, even acknowledge. “There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever,” the fired director said. “The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. And it was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government.” “It’s my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” Comey added.
— Now the question is: Will Republicans ever believe him?