President Donald J. Trump is having a bad day, and things are about to get worse.
Tuesday, January 24, was relatively warm for a winter day in Washington DC. The town was still smarting from the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump the previous Friday and already, the administration was under investigation.
On that day, FBI investigators paid a visit to Trump’s National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn. They wanted to ask Flynn some questions about the nature of his relationship with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Investigators had inadvertently picked up the National Security Adviser’s texts and phone calls in their surveillance of the Russian ambassador. Flynn seemed to be leaking confidential information to the Russians, even promising to ease sanctions as soon as soon as Trump took office.
The interview deeply troubled investigators. He not only lied to them about the nature of the contacts with Kislyak but he seemed to have lied to the Vice President, and others, in the administration. A lie which was being repeated again and again, as fact, in public interviews.
Investigators returned to their office and sent a message up the chain to the Justice Department. They had sobering news for the Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Flynn had likely been compromised by the Russians. At the very least, the Russians had significant leverage over the National Security Adviser.
First thing on Thursday morning, Yates called Trump’s Counsel Don McGhan at the White House. She needed to see him immediately on a matter of extreme urgency. When she arrived at the White House later that afternoon, she told McGhan about the DOJ’s concerns about Flynn. After inquiring how Flynn had done in his interview, he asked Yates to return the next day, to answer some additional questions.
That Friday marked the end of the first week of the 45th President. Early that morning, President Trump picked up the phone. He dialed the FBI Director James Comey.
“Can you come over for dinner tonight?” President Trump asked his FBI Director.
“Yes, sir,” Comey replied.
“Will 6:00 work?” Trump inquired.
“I was going to invite your whole family but we’ll do it next time,” the President said. “Is that a good time?”
“Sir, whatever works for you,” Comey replied.
“How about 6:30?” Trump offered.
“Whatever works for you, sir,” Director Comey responded.
The FBI Director hung up the phone and called his wife. He had to break the news to her that he’d have to cancel their dinner date that night. While Comey adjusted his evening plans. His boss, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, returned to the White House Counsel’s office.
“Why does it matter to the Department of Justice if one White House official lies to another White House official?” Yates recalls McGhan asking. Yates explained DOJ’s concern about Flynn’s actual conduct – which involved subversive contacts with the Russian ambassador.
Then, she added. “Flynn had lied to the vice president and others, the American public had been misled.” The “others” was likely a reference to the FBI. McGhan asked Yates if he could take a look at the underlying evidence. She said she would arrange that over the weekend.
James Comey arrived for dinner with the President at 6:30 and was surprised he was the only guest. The two of them sat at a small oval table in the center of the Green room. A couple of Navy stewards waited on them but they only entered the room to serve food and drinks, then left.
Twice before, the President assured Comey he would stay on as FBI Director so Comey was surprised the President brought it up again. Trump broached the uncomfortable topic by questioning the FBI Director’s reliability.
“I am not “reliable” in the way politicians use that word, but you could always count on me to tell you the truth,” Comey responded, assuring the President he wasn’t on anyone’s side politically.
“I need loyalty,” the President said.
“You will always get honesty from me,” Comey responded.
“That’s what I want, honest loyalty,” Trump insisted.
“You will get that from me,” Comey responded though still unsure of what that term meant to the President.
As the FBI Director left the White House that Friday night, he felt the message was clear. He could keep his job, only if he demonstrated loyalty.
Over the weekend, Sally Yates worked on arranging a meeting for McGhan to view the underlying evidence. She called him first thing that Monday morning to share details but didn’t hear back from him until later that afternoon. She would never find out if he got to see the evidence. Trump fired Yates that night in tersely worded statement that said she had “betrayed” her country for not supporting his immigration ban. In hindsight, her “betrayal” may have had more to do with her handling of the Flynn investigation.
Flynn was forced to resign after just 18 days on the job. President Trump said it was because Flynn had lied to the Vice President. Trump failed to mention Flynn had also lied to FBI investigators. A felony.
Comey returned to the White House on February 14th for a counter-intelligence briefing of the President. Also there: the Vice President, the new Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner. As the meeting drew to a close, Trump indicated he wanted Comey to stay behind, alone.
“Why would you kick everyone out of the office?” Comey mulled in his mind.
“I want to talk about Mike Flynn.” The President said.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” He asked. “He is a good guy.”
“He is a good guy,” Comey agreed, recalling their positive interactions when Flynn was Director of Defense Intelligence but Comey said nothing of letting anything go.
The President and Comey had two other phone calls in the coming weeks. On March 30th, Trump asked if he was personally under investigation. Comey told him he wasn’t.
On April 11, Trump called to ask Comey if he could “lift the cloud” of suspicion being created by the Russia investigation, by publicly stating Trump wasn’t a target of the probe. Comey said he had referred that matter to the Deputy Attorney General.
By May 9th, as the Russia investigation began to close in on Trump’s family and Jared Kushner in particular, Trump fired Comey. The official reason for the dismissal was for Comey’s role in the Clinton e-mail investigation but the public face of the firing wore thin quickly. Within days, Trump was on TV admitting he fired Comey because of Russia.
“When I decided to just do it [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russian thing with Trump and Russia … is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election.”
Now back at home as a private citizen, Comey bristled at the shifting excuses Trump had offered for his firing and the President’s labeling of the FBI as being in disarray. “Those were lies, plain and simple, and I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them and I’m so sorry that the American people were told them,” Comey testified before a Senate Committee today.
In fact, Comey himself had become “Exhibit A” for Obstruction of Justice. In firing the FBI Director, Trump had likely committed an impeachable act. “I have no doubt in my mind, I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” Comey told the hearing. What could be more obstructive than firing the lead investigator?
Up until that point, there was some evidence to suggest interference, but merely hoping someone “lets go” of something wouldn’t pass the high bar necessary for impeaching a President. Firing the FBI Director, and the Acting Attorney General for that matter, would. And by linking it all back to Flynn, Trump had also proved collusion with Russia.
In his testimony, Comey likened Trump’s request to “let go” the Flynn investigation to that of King Henry II, who was able to get Thomas Beckett killed in 1179 by asking his knights “who will rid me of the meddlesome priest?”. The ending here looks to be far less fatal except, in all likelihood, to a Presidency without any respect for rule of law.