In testimony published ahead of his Thursday hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, former FBI Director James Comey revealed that President Donald Trump repeatedly tried to talk to him about the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia — an allegation that legal analysts say could very well show that Trump sought to obstruct justice, though impeachment remains unlikely while Republicans control Congress.
“I think that [the testimony] confirms what we heard before, from the Comey memo, that he was under extraordinary pressure to drop the investigation of [former security adviser Michael] Flynn as well as the Russia investigation,” Richard Painter, George W. Bush’s former ethics lawyer, told VICE News. “It is certainly evidence of obstruction of justice by the president.”
But, Painter added, all we have so far are the opening remarks — Comey’s Thursday testimony will, presumably, shed further light on the many “awkward” private conversations he allegedly shared with Trump, including one where Trump allegedly asked him to “lift the cloud” caused by the Russia probe. There’s at least one question that senators will almost certainly ask: Did Comey himself felt that the president was trying to impede the FBI investigation?
“You’d have to prove that [Trump] was trying to stop the investigation, as opposed to innocently asking, ‘How are things going?’” explained Georgetown Law professor Susan Low Bloch, who isn’t convinced that Comey’s testimony proves that Trump acted with such an intent. And while presidents are generally advised to steer clear of conversations like the ones Comey details in order to avoid even the appearance of obstruction of justice, Georgetown Law professor Paul Rothstein told VICE News over email, Trump has definitely demonstrated that he’s ready to bulldoze through presidential norms.
Peter Zeidenberg, who spent 17 years working at the Justice Department as a federal prosecutor, pointed to the allegation that Trump asked everybody to leave the room before he spoke to Comey as proof of intent.
“Why would you ask other people to leave?” asked Zeidenberg, referring to the allegation that Trump sent his officials out of the room before he asked Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn. “If you didn’t think what you were doing was problematic, why would you ask in front of everybody else?”
But ultimately, since sitting presidents likely can’t be criminally prosecuted, Bloch said, questions about whether Trump obstructed justice are not legal, but political. In order to impeach Trump, both the majority of the House of Representatives and two-thirds of the Senate must agree to kick him out.
And that’s unlikely to happen while Republicans are in charge of Congress. “It only matters if Republicans say it matters, so if they say it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter,” Zeidenberg explained. “Now, Trump goes down further in the polls, it’ll change the political equation… I think people’s perception of it will change.”
So far, few Republicans have commented on Comey’s testimony, though House Speaker Paul Ryan did tell reporters that Trump allegedly asking Comey for “loyalty” was inappropriate.
Benjamin Wittes, a friend of Comey’s and editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog, refused to discuss whether Trump’s actions amounted to obstruction of justice in a Wednesday post. But regardless, he wrote, Comey’s description of Trump’s behavior is “poisonous stuff to a rule of law society that requires that law enforcement not be simply an arm of political power.”
At least one person, however, seems unconcerned by the apparent revelations contained in Comey’s testimony: Trump. One of the president’s private lawyer told reporters Wednesday, “The President feels completely and totally vindicated. He is eager to continue to move forward with his agenda.”