Alternative views on... Trump versus Comey
A regular Irish Times selection of challenging writing on world affairs
Reputations were on the line when former FBI director James Comey sat down to testify before the US Senate intelligence committee last week – principally his own, and that of US president Donald Trump.
Comey’s frank rejection of Trump’s stated reasons for firing him – “lies, plain and simple” – was followed by his potentially damaging evidence that the president had tried to put pressure on him to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s alleged links to Russia.
Trump’s response was characteristically hard-hitting, claiming “total and complete vindication” in spite of Comey’s “false statements and lies”. Referencing the former FBI chief’s disclosure that he had surreptitiously provided the New York Times an account of his dealings with Trump, the president tweeted: “… and WOW. Comey is a leaker!”
The Trump-Comey battle already has a look of the fight-to-the-death about it. But who won the first round? Unsurprisingly, given the almost uniform hostility to Trump among the mainstream American media, most US commentators have awarded the victory to Comey. But there are significant dissenting voices.
The pro-Comey camp includes Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, who argues that Trump’s claim of vindication is premature. “No, this investigation is only beginning. For those who appreciate history, it’s important to note that the Watergate investigations went on for more than two years,” he writes.
Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post goes further, making the case that Comey’s testimony was “utterly devastating” for Trump. “In a swearing contest between Comey and Trump, Comey wins, hands down, against a man whose misstatements keep the fact-checkers working overtime,” she writes.
Alicia Shepard offers a different perspective in USA Today. In an opinion piece under the headline, “Now James Comey knows how women feel when the boss harasses them,” she defends Comey from criticism that he should have stood up to Trump there and then when the president allegedly suggested that the Flynn investigation be dropped. Comey told the Senate committee that he was “stunned” by Trump’s intervention and perhaps, if he was “stronger”, he would have challenged the president. “Comey’s reaction,” writes Shepard, “is akin to that of former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson and a slew of other women who have felt intimidated or afraid when those with power clearly act out of line.”
A minority of commentators, however, argue that Comey’s testimony was at least as damaging to himself as to Trump. “Like many of our government betters, Comey forgot he was a public servant,” writes New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin. “The arrogance of unaccountable power drips from him like sweat from a racehorse.”
Dallas Morning News columnist James Ragland says he has a hard time seeing Comey as a victim. He accepts that in a credibility contest between Comey and Trump, the former FBI director would win “hands down”, and that the picture emerging “looks bad and smells bad” for the president. “But I can’t let Comey off the hook, either – or, more pointedly, place him on a pedestal. I mean, how do we reconcile Comey’s inside-the-Beltway reputation as a straight-shooter who does the right thing under pressure with his timid interactions with Trump?”
Legal specialists John Yoo and David Marston – both Republicans – go much further in the Philadelphia Inquirer, bluntly stating that “the president was right to fire FBI Director James Comey”. What Comey did not do in response to his exchange with the president about Michael Flynn reveals more than what he did do, they argue. “Did Comey report Trump’s comment to Attorney General Jeff Sessions or any other federal prosecutors as a possible obstruction of justice? No. Did the FBI director warn Trump that his comment was inappropriate and possibly illegal? No. Instead, Comey recorded Trump’s comment in an unclassified memo and kept it “very closely held” within senior FBI leadership. It would become leverage, a la J. Edgar Hoover, if Trump should ever try to fire Comey.”