President Donald Trump is declaring victory despite scathing testimony against him by former FBI Director James B. Comey. But that likely will further complicate his domestic agenda and transform the 2018 midterms into a referendum on his actions related to the bureau’s investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. elections.
Comey did not land a knockout blow on the president during hours of dramatic testimony Thursday. But some experts say he presented a strong case that the president obstructed justice when Trump leaned on him to drop a probe of his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and then allegedly fired Comey for refusing to do so.
Senate Intelligence Committee Republicans largely provided the president cover during the widely watched hearing, and Republican members are continuing work on the health care and tax overhaul packages Trump wants to sign into law as soon as possible.
GOP leaders such as Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin are defending Trump’s actions as the behavior of a political neophyte who was simply unaware of the protocol for a chief executive when dealing with a FBI director.
Even before Trump fired Comey, triggering the appointment of a special counsel for the Russia probe, deep divisions among Republicans threatened the agenda. But Trump’s legal troubles will further burden an already embattled legislative process as the president sheds political capital, experts say.
“Both opponents and supporters of the president feel they gathered more ammunition from yesterday’s hearing, so this fight isn’t going away anytime soon,” said Michael Steel, a onetime senior aide to former House Speaker John A. Boehner and 2016 GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush.
“That will continue to make it difficult for congressional Republicans to get the press and the public to focus on tax reform, health care and other priorities,” Steel added.
A continuing muddle
Carl Bon Tempo, a history professor at the University at Albany, SUNY, said the legal troubles experienced by Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton “show it makes it hard for the sitting president to do the job he was elected to do.”
“These kinds of situations suck up so much time and energy — from a president and from his White House staff,” Bon Tempo said. “Most likely, the legislative agenda — which was going to be very difficult before all of this — is going to continue to be a muddle for the foreseeable future.”
Longer term, however, the president could find himself in legal and political hot water.
That’s because Comey “didn’t backtrack at all from things that previously were not on the record. He doubled down — and now these very serious allegations are on the record from a very credible individual,” said Jens David Ohlin, a law professor at Cornell Law School.
“The obstruction case was definitely bolstered. But it’s not just about obstruction. When the conversations are coupled with the firing, that’s corruption,” Ohlin said.
Bars were packed in Washington as people watched Comey’s testimony like a sporting event. But experts say Trump’s fate won’t play out like a boxing match, when one combatant knocks out his opponent.
“There will never be one smoking gun,” Ohlin said. “It will be all of it: the conversation with Comey about the Flynn investigation, Comey said no, and then the president fired him. Together, it presents a picture of obstruction of justice.”
Legal experts reacted to Comey’s testimony by saying it appeared he was intent on strengthening the notion that the president was trying to influence him to drop the Flynn probe — while also making clear his desire for the entire Russia investigation to go away.
The former FBI chief told senators he took Trump’s comments about the FBI’s probe of Flynn “as a direction” to stop investigating the retired three-star Army general. Comey repeatedly told the committee he believes he was fired by Trump because of the bureau’s Russia investigation, which involves looking into potential ties between the Trump-Pence presidential campaign and Moscow.
“I take the president at his word, that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” Comey told Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., at one point Thursday. “Something about the way I was conducting it, the president felt, created pressure on him that he wanted to relieve.”
Comey did tell the panel Trump never overtly asked him to drop the overall Russia probe, but the president did, during a phone conversation, allegedly complain that the investigation had placed a “cloud” over his presidency that was making it hard for him to govern.
Even if Robert Mueller, who is leading the special investigation of the matter, concludes that Comey’s version of events is true and clearly states that his probe shows Trump obstructed justice — a federal crime — a sitting president cannot be indicted. Some legal scholars even argue that if one was, the office of the presidency would allow that chief executive to pardon oneself.
“Mueller can say in a report that it’s obstruction of justice, but so what?” Ohlin said. “People don’t appreciate that this is a political matter, not a criminal matter. The sole remedy would be impeachment and removal — and only Congress can decide to start that process.”
But senior Republican and Democratic leaders appear in lockstep on one thing: Nothing will happen until Mueller completes his work.
Legal sources say the career lawman’s investigation will last months — likely well into next spring or summer — as he methodically conducts interviews, analyzes reams of documents, emails, phone and travel records, and text messages. That means Mueller could wrap up his probe and go public with his findings just as the 2018 midterm races are heating up.
And that could turn the fight for control of the House and Senate into a referendum on whether the president broke federal law — and whether he should face impeachment proceedings by a Democrat-controlled House.
“Passions and energy were already going to be very high,” Bon Tempo said. “The thing that this scandal does is act as an accelerant.”
In the meantime, sources and White House aides say Trump will continue to push for his agenda and try to work with lawmakers. He will have to keep Republicans united behind him, just as Clinton did with the Democrats in the 1990s when he was impeached by the GOP House but the GOP Senate failed to secure enough votes to remove him from office.
On Friday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged her Republican colleagues to “be more, shall we say, open to facts and the truth.”
“We have to understand that, well, we’re in an extraordinary circumstance,” the California Democrat said. “We’ve never been to a place like this.”
Rema Rahman contributed to this report.