Thursday, June 8, 2017

USA Africa Dialogue Series - STAR INFORMATION: The Most Unnerving Parts of Comey's Testimony - And GOP's "Toddler" Defense of Trump


Read The Most Dramatic, Unnerving Parts Of James Comey's Testimony

The president demanded loyalty at a one-on-one dinner at the White House and seemed to want Comey to ask to keep his job.

WASHINGTON ― Former FBI Director James Comey is set to testify Thursday about President Donald Trump's alleged interference with a federal investigation into potential Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Here are some of the highlights from Comey's prepared testimony, released Wednesday.

Comey says he spoke with Trump nine times ― including in six phone calls. He only spoke one-on-one with Obama twice.

"I felt compelled to document my first conversation with the President-Elect in a memo. To ensure accuracy, I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting. Creating written records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my practice from that point forward. This had not been my practice in the past. I spoke alone with President Obama twice in person (and never on the phone) – once in 2015 to discuss law enforcement policy issues and a second time, briefly, for him to say goodbye in late 2016. In neither of those circumstances did I memorialize the discussions. I can recall nine one-on-one conversations with President Trump in four months – three in person and six on the phone."

Trump invited Comey to dinner at the White House. Comey assumed others would be there. It was just the two of them.

"The President and I had dinner on Friday, January 27 at 6:30 pm in the Green Room at the White House. He had called me at lunchtime that day and invited me to dinner that night, saying he was going to invite my whole family, but decided to have just me this time, with the whole family coming the next time. It was unclear from the conversation who else would be at the dinner, although I assumed there would be others.

"It turned out to be just the two of us, seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room. Two Navy stewards waited on us, only entering the room to serve food and drinks."

Comey believed Trump wanted to "create some sort of patronage relationship."

"The President began by asking me whether I wanted to stay on as FBI Director, which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to. He said that lots of people wanted my job and, given the abuse I had taken during the previous year, he would understand if I wanted to walk away.

"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."

Comey was "uneasy" about the meeting. Then Trump asked for "loyalty."

"I replied that I loved my work and intended to stay and serve out my ten-year term as Director. And then, because the set-up made me uneasy, I added that I was not 'reliable' in the way politicians use that word, but he could always count on me to tell him the truth. I added that I was not on anybody's side politically and could not be counted on in the traditional political sense, a stance I said was in his best interest as the President.

"A few moments later, the President said, 'I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.' 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. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.

"At one point, I explained why it was so important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House. I said it was a paradox: Throughout history, some Presidents have decided that because 'problems' come from Justice, they should try to hold the Department close. But blurring those boundaries ultimately makes the problems worse by undermining public trust in the institutions and their work."

The whole thing was "very awkward."

"Near the end of our dinner, the President returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, 'I need loyalty.' I replied, 'You will always get honesty from me.' He paused and then said, 'That's what I want, honest loyalty.' I paused, and then said, 'You will get that from me.' As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase 'honest loyalty' differently, but I decided it wouldn't be productive to push it further. The term – honest loyalty – had helped end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he should expect.

"During the dinner, the President returned to the salacious material I had briefed him about on January 6, and, as he had done previously, expressed his disgust for the allegations and strongly denied them. He said he was considering ordering me to investigate the alleged incident to prove it didn't happen. I replied that he should give that careful thought because it might create a narrative that we were investigating him personally, which we weren't, and because it was very difficult to prove a negative. He said he would think about it and asked me to think about it."

After an Oval Office meeting, Trump talked to Comey about "letting Flynn go."

A few weeks later after an Oval Office briefing on counterterrorism, Trump pulled Comey aside to talk one-on-one.

"The President signaled the end of the briefing by thanking the group and telling them all that he wanted to speak to me alone. I stayed in my chair. As the participants started to leave the Oval Office, the Attorney General lingered by my chair, but the President thanked him and said he wanted to speak only with me. The last person to leave was Jared Kushner, who also stood by my chair and exchanged pleasantries with me. The President then excused him, saying he wanted to speak with me.

"When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the President began by saying, 'I want to talk about Mike Flynn.' Flynn had resigned the previous day. The President began by saying Flynn hadn't done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians, but he had to let him go because he had misled the Vice President. He added that he had other concerns about Flynn, which he did not then specify."

"The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, 'He is a good guy and has been through a lot.' He repeated that Flynn hadn't done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, 'I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.' I replied only that 'he is a good guy.' (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would 'let this go.'"

Comey "understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn."

Comey's FBI leadership team "concluded it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations. (He did so two weeks later.) The Deputy Attorney General's role was then filled in an acting capacity by a United States Attorney, who would also not be long in the role.

"After discussing the matter, we decided to keep it very closely held, resolving to figure out what to do with it down the road as our investigation progressed. The investigation moved ahead at full speed, with none of the investigative team members – or the Department of Justice lawyers supporting them – aware of the President's request."

Comey told Jeff Sessions that Trump was acting inappropriately. Sessions went mum. 

"I took the opportunity to implore the Attorney General to prevent any future direct communication between the President and me. I told the AG that what had just happened – him being asked to leave while the FBI Director, who reports to the AG, remained behind – was inappropriate and should never happen. He did not reply."

Trump told Comey he wasn't involved with Russian "hookers."

"On the morning of March 30, the President called me at the FBI. He described the Russia investigation as 'a cloud' that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia."

Trump wanted to know if some "satellite" associates of his had done something wrong.

"The President went on to say that if there were some 'satellite' associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn't done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren't investigating him."

Trump asked for loyalty again, and complained about the "cloud" over his administration.

"On the morning of April 11, the President called me and asked what I had done about his request that I 'get out' that he is not personally under investigation. I replied that I had passed his request to the Acting Deputy Attorney General, but I had not heard back. He replied that 'the cloud' was getting in the way of his ability to do his job. He said that perhaps he would have his people reach out to the Acting Deputy Attorney General. I said that was the way his request should be handled. I said the White House Counsel should contact the leadership of DOJ to make the request, which was the traditional channel.

"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.

"That was the last time I spoke with President Trump."


GOP's New Defense of Trump: The Guy's A Toddler, He Doesn't Know Any Better

From taking sides in the Qatar dispute to leaning on an FBI director to drop an investigation, Trump's blunders should be excused, the argument goes.

WASHINGTON – Republicans attempting to explain President Donald Trump's behavior appear to be trying out a novel approach: He ought not to be blamed for his mistakes because he doesn't know any better.

"He's new at government and so, therefore, I think that he's learning as he goes," House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters Thursday, explaining how Trump could have thought it was OK to lean on the FBI director to drop a criminal investigation.

Call it the toddler defense. Trump cannot be expected to understand appropriate behavior for a president because he is a businessman, not a politician, and is still only learning.

Trump's Republican critics, though, have little patience with this argument – particularly because of the dangers it poses in foreign affairs. They point to an MSNBC reportThursday suggesting that Trump may have been unaware that Qatar hosts a crucial U.S. air base when he issued a statement via Twitter accusing that nation of supporting terrorists.

"Our base in Qatar is a major hub for operations in the region. If he is getting halfway decent briefings on ongoing operations, he would know that ― and if he is not being decently briefed, it is on him, no one else," said Eliot Cohen, a top lawyer at the State Department under President George W. Bush who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University. "Ditto, leaning on the FBI director to drop a politically inconvenient investigation."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the MSNBC report on Qatar was not accurate. "100 percent false," he said.As it happens, Trump's ignorance actually seemed a feature on the campaign trail, as many of his core supporters justified their allegiance in spite of his clear ― and sometimes admitted ― lack of knowledge on a range of issues, from health care to foreign policy. After Trump won the GOP nomination, more established Republican operatives adopted a similar defense of their standard-bearer.

But both grassroots followers and Republican Party regulars nevertheless expressed confidence that Trump, in their view a wildly successful businessman, would quickly learn on the job all he needed to know.

Some supporters, though, concede that five months in, Trump has not been learning as quickly as might have been hoped.

"The voters wanted an outsider, and these are things you get with someone from outside," said one top Republican National Committee member privately.

Matt Mackowiak, a Texas GOP consultant and frequent Trump defender, acknowledged that Trump's attempts to end the investigation into his first national security adviser's contacts with Russian officials was improper.

"Lawyers know that ignorance of the law is no defense," Mackowiak said. "But what may have clearly been inappropriate, may indeed not rise to the level of being illegal."

For Trump critics, the attempts to defend the president's ignorance and unwillingness to adhere to basic standards of conduct have already gone too far ― particularly as they now involve the Republican National Committee's systematic attacks on Comey's integrity.

"Trump is like a parasite that invaded the body politic, and the part that is most rotten right now is the RNC," said John Weaver, who ran Ohio Gov. John Kasich's presidential campaign last year. "They should be ashamed of themselves."

Weaver added that in addition to being wrong, reflexively defending Trump was bad politics. "Handcuffing yourself to a president who's at 34 percent and sinking is not a good strategy," he said.

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