James Comey’s deeply troubling testimony

The Observer editorial board

Former FBI Director James Comey speaks Thursday to a Senate Intelligence Committee.
Former FBI Director James Comey speaks Thursday to a Senate Intelligence Committee. AP

The former head of the FBI told the American public Thursday that the president of the United States is so untrustworthy he felt compelled to document encounters with him, something he did not do while working in the Bush or Obama administrations.

President Donald Trump asked James Comey to pledge personal loyalty to establish a “patronage relationship,” directed him to shut down a criminal investigation, then fired him to remove “a cloud” hanging over the Trump administration caused by the FBI probe into Russian’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The president’s personal lawyer denies Comey’s claims, pitting the word of a man known for his integrity – even among critics who disagreed with his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation – versus a man who bragged about the art of lying in a best-selling book.

“Why did he kick everybody out of the Oval Office?” Comey said to the Senate Intelligence Committee about a meeting in which Trump asked the FBI director to back off the investigation into Michael Flynn’s alleged misstatements about his contacts with Russia. “This is the president of the United States, with me alone.”

Comey, a man who spent years pursuing and prosecuting top criminals and terrorists, was so flustered he essentially froze, not sure how to respond.

And yet, for many Republicans, that amounts to little more than “crude, rude” behavior, in the words of Sen. Lindsey Graham, nothing to be alarmed about, and definitely not criminal. That’s how low the GOP has fallen. Neither a threat from Russia, nor the blatant abuse of presidential power Comey described Thursday before a Senate committee has been enough to convince the majority of Republicans to place country over party.

The lowering of standards isn’t exclusive to Republicans. On Thursday, we also found out that former Attorney General Loretta Lynch directed Comey to avoid publicly classifying the Clinton probe as the criminal investigation it was. That request disturbed Comey – as it should disturb us all – because it felt too political of a stance by the nation’s top law enforcement official. And it could easily be interpreted as interference in the Clinton probe, even if subtler than the interference Comey alleged about Trump. Comey’s misgivings were further inflamed by Lynch’s meeting with President Bill Clinton on a tarmac during the campaign.

While it is right to be disturbed by Lynch’s seemingly politically motivated decision to tell Comey to refer to the Clinton email probe as a “matter” instead of an “investigation,” Comey’s allegations about Trump are worse. They are a direct challenge to our democracy’s checks and balances.

It is not OK for a sitting president to try to squash a criminal investigation into a White House official. While constitutional scholars and lawyers will debate the legal fine points, Americans must say loudly and clearly that is unacceptable. If such behavior becomes a new, acceptable standard, our system would lose most of its legitimacy. The president would become untouchable.

That wouldn’t make America great again. It would lower the country’s credibility to depths from which it might never recover.