Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Thursday changed my opinion about Donald Trump.
I am now convinced that Trump is not as clueless as some people think. In fact, he is deviously clever.
The president knew exactly what he was doing when he invited the FBI chief to a private dinner at the White House and asked him to pledge his loyalty. And on Valentine’s Day, when the president asked Comey to stay behind in the Oval Office, Trump was clearing the way for what he knew was an inappropriate conversation.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions surely realized what was going on. That’s why he was reluctant to leave. So did Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, who also lingered behind until the president excused him from the room.
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Trump wanted the investigation into fired national security adviser Michael Flynn’s contact with the Russians to end. And he went straight to the man in charge to tell him to drop it.
Behind that closed door by the grandfather clock, Trump made his move. It will be up to others to decide whether he tried to obstruct justice.
Before the televised hearing, it was easy to dismiss Trump’s conversations with Comey as the actions of a novice president, someone who naively believed that he could carry practices used in the corporate world over to the public sector.
It is not uncommon in the business world for a boss to demand loyalty from employees. And some would argue that Trump might have innocently considered his interaction with Comey as the equivalent to requiring top-level employees to sign a confidentially agreement.
I don’t buy it. Not anymore. Trump’s demands to Comey were well thought-out and deliberate. The president was smart enough to know that he couldn’t verbally give Comey a direct order. He knew that by being vague, his comments would be open to interpretation. If this conversation ever came to light, as he likely suspected it could, his supporters would have room for a defense.
So he used phrases like “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go” and terms like “lift the cloud” and “that thing.”
Comey knew exactly what the president meant. So do we. From the moment he won the presidency, Trump had been insecure about where he stood with the American people. Facing mounting suspicions that he had formed an alliance with Russia to cheat on democracy, he set out to clear his name.
He needed someone with a stellar background to vouch for him, someone who had the power to put an end to those ugly rumors about Russia once and for all. He needed Comey on his team. Comey was a dedicated FBI man, well respected and non-partisan. Everyone didn’t always agree with his decisions, but underneath, we knew he was an upstanding man.
If Trump could get Comey to pledge loyalty to him, the president would be free to run the country any way he saw fit. Comey made it clear for the record Thursday that the Russians interfered with the presidential election in an attempt to get Trump elected. What we still don’t know is whether Trump or anybody on his team collaborated with the Russians to make that happen.
But what troubled Trump most wasn’t that the Russians made an assault on our democracy; it’s that the probe left a cloud of suspicion hanging over his presidency.
For Trump, that’s all that really mattered.
On three occasions, for reasons Comey did not clearly explain, he told the president that he was not personally the target of any investigation. That was a mistake, and it gave Trump ammunition to keep pushing for more.
Trump would not be satisfied until Comey said publicly what he had told him privately. We already knew Trump only cares about Trump. We should be grateful that Comey took detailed notes. Otherwise, we might never have known how cunning our president is.
Reach Dahleen Glanton at dglanton@chicago