Donald Trump’s “I am not a crook” moment: Now it’s the cover-up, not the crime

Yes, it’s like Watergate: Trump’s actions have made a murky scandal much worse. But it might not end the same way

By MATTHEW SHEFFIELD | SALON |FRIDAY, JUN 9, 2017 05:00 AM EDT

 

In the aftermath of President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, the phrase “It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up” entered the cultural mainstream, moving from being a political catchphrase to the sort of thing used in hackneyed televised cop shows.

But in a year when the current president is engulfed in a scandal featuring a person who is named Reality Winner, the shopworn phrase from the 1970s has returned with a vengeance.

The Trump-Russia story has long been compared to the Watergate scandal and reached a Nixonesque high point on Thursday as former FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. No law enforcement agency has thus far found any evidence indicating that President Donald Trump colluded with Russian officials in order to win the 2016 presidential election. At the same time, Trump appears to have taken several actions related to the investigation that were, at best, incredibly naïve and inappropriate. At worst, they may well represent obstruction of justice.

According to Comey, Trump considered the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation to be a “cloud” over his administration. But instead of forcing White House and former campaign officials to expedite their cooperation with the law enforcement agency, Trump instead chose to repeatedly apply pressure on Comey to speed things up on his end.

The president was particularly insistent about trying to help Michael Flynn, the onetime head of the Defense Intelligence Agency who was forced out for odd behavior during the administration of former President Barack Obama but later hired by Trump as national security adviser.

Comey testifed about a Feb. 14 meeting (documented by him in a memorandum written immediately afterward) between Trump and himself in the Oval Office that followed a routine counterterrorism briefing attended by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, senior adviser Jared Kushner and several other military and intelligence officials.

After collectively dismissing the others — and Kushner and Sessions explicitly as they lingered, perhaps knowing what was about to transpire — the president told Comey that he wanted to talk about Flynn. The latter had resigned from his position only the day before, after word got out that he had made false statements to Vice President Mike Pence about pre-inauguration conversations with Russian government officials.

“He is a good guy and has been through a lot,” Trump began during his private meeting with Comey, according to his testimony. He then asserted that Flynn had done nothing wrong in speaking to the Russians, only that he had failed to tell the truth about his conversations.

After alluding to other (unspecified) concerns about Flynn, the president then asked Comey if it was possible for him to end the separate criminal inquiry that the FBI had opened into Flynn’s conduct.

“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,” Trump said, according to Comey.

Although Trump’s request was not explicitly phrased as a demand, Comey suggested on Thursday that he couldn’t help but interpret it as one.

“It rings in my ear as, well, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest,’” Comey said, referencing an apocryphal story about England’s King Henry II and his indirect order to murder Thomas Becket, a bishop who had opposed his rule.

Comey declined to back off on Flynn or any other aspect of the Russia investigation and was subsequently fired by the president on May 9. Immediately thereafter, the White House concocted an elaborate and obviously false series of explanations about why the FBI head had been sacked, citing a memorandum written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that had little or nothing to do with Trump’s decision.

According to Comey, the president’s Feb. 14 request was the most explicit of multiple attempts made by Trump to manage the Russia inquiry.

In his Thursday hearing testimony, Comey also said from the very beginning of Trump’s tenure, he felt it necessary to document his interactions with the president, unlike his sentiments while dealing with Obama and former President George W. Bush.

“I knew there might come a day when I would need a record of what had happened, not just to defend myself, but to defend the FBI and our integrity as an institution and the independence of our investigativ