Two intertwined themes run through former FBI-Director James Comey’s hot-off-the-presses written testimony: loyalty and quid pro quo. Neither is appropriate for the relationship between the president and his FBI director.
Comey’s recounting of his interactions with President Donald Trump shows time and again that Trump believed that he had bought Comey’s personal loyalty by allowing him to stay on in his job. Comey was surprised that Trump began their January tête-à-tête, by asking him if he wanted to stay on as FBI Director. Trump had already told Comey twice that he hoped he would stay and Comey had assured him that he intended to do so. The veiled threat came when Trump told him:“lots of people wanted [his] job.” Comey is very clear about how he interpreted the conversation:
My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.
It seems that Comey tried to explain to Trump that he would not be the president’s man at the FBI. If Comey is to be believed, he himself broached the subject of “loyalty,” telling Trump that he was not “’reliable’” in the way politicians use that word” and “was not on anybody’s side politically.” Comey then describes a tussle between the two, with Trump insisting on loyalty, and Comey refusing to give him that.
I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.
Why then did Comey, as he himself says, later tell the president during that initial conversation that he could expect “honest loyalty”? His explanation – that he didn’t want to push the issue and was seeking to end an awkward conversation – seems plausible. Until you recall that Comey himself turned the conversation to the issue of reliability, presumably because he wanted to clarify their respective roles.
While Comey seems to think that he had made his point clear to Trump, the president doesn’t seem to have gotten the message. Comey’s retelling of his March 30 phone call with Trump suggests that the president was trying to cash in on allowing Comey to stay on. He asked the director what the FBI could do to “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation and complained about Comey’s public confirmation of the FBI’s investigation. In the last call between the two, per Comey, Trump asked about his request on Russia and Comey referred him to the acting deputy attorney general.
He said he would do that and added, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” I did not reply or ask him what he meant by “that thing.” I said only that the way to handle it was to have the White House Counsel call the Acting Deputy Attorney General. He said that was what he would do and the call ended.
Here again, Comey oddly didn’t try and bring the conversation to its logical conclusion by asking about “that thing” or telling the president (again) that personal loyalty wasn’t part of the job description of the FBI Director.
What Comey had been – and still seems to be – willing to give Trump is reassurance that he personally was not the target of the FBI’s investigation, at least at the time. The president claims that Comey told him this on three occasions, which is now confirmed by Comey’s testimony. Perhaps that’s the only bit of quid pro quo that Comey was willing to give the president. Or perhaps it’s just Comey telling the truth. Maybe we will find out tomorrow when Comey testifies in person.