James Comey’s written statement, released to the public on the eve of his testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, is a remarkable document. In it, the former FBI director details interactions with the president of the United States that range from inappropriate to transgressive—actions that undermine the rule of law as we understand it.
Comey recounts a private meeting with President Trump, a dinner, where the president asked Comey for his personal loyalty. “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty,” said Trump, according to Comey’s sworn testimony. (Trump’s personal attorney issued a statement following Comey’s testimony saying that the president “never told Mr. Comey, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty’ in form or substance,” essentially accusing the former FBI director of perjury before the Senate.) Comey recounts a second meeting, alone in the Oval Office, where Trump urged Comey to end an investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He’s a good guy. I hope you can let this go,” said Trump in Comey’s recollection, which Comey says he documented in contemporaneous notes. (Trump’s personal lawyer said that the president never suggested “Comey let Flynn go,” again, essentially accusing him of perjury.) In two separate conversations, both over the phone, Trump reportedly urged Comey to “lift the cloud” over his administration and “get out” that he wasn’t personally under investigation.
In his Thursday testimony to the committee, Comey wouldn’t say if he felt this rose to “obstruction of justice,” the charge that ultimately led to Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency, saying it was up to the special counsel Robert Mueller to determine. “I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct,” he said about the conversation regarding Flynn. “I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning, but that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work towards to find out the intention and whether that’s an offense.” He later said it was “Mueller’s job” to “sort out” whether or not obstruction has been committed.
Whether or not the president’s actions ultimately rise to “obstruction” according to Mueller’s investigation, however, it’s clear these are serious allegations that suggest a kind of lawlessness in the White House, from a president with little regard for the norms that govern conduct in the Oval Office. Trump’s alleged demand for Comey’s personal loyalty—in a government where officials pledge allegiance to the Constitution, not the president—would itself be a profound attack on the rule of law. In an ideal world, or at least a more functional one, lawmakers on both sides would see and treat this as a crisis that demands resolution, lest it corrode American democracy.
But that’s not what we have. Just one of our two parties is interested in checking this president’s abuse. The other, the Republican Party, is indifferent, content to tolerate Trump’s misconduct as long as it doesn’t interrupt or interfere with its political agenda. What defined Thursday’s hearing, in fact, was the degree to which Republicans downplayed obvious examples of bad—potentially illegal—behavior and sought to exonerate Trump rather than grapple with Comey’s damning allegations about the president. Sen. James Risch of Idaho, for example, pressed Comey on his claim that President Trump had asked the then–FBI director to drop the investigation into Flynn, suggesting that—because Trump didn’t give a direct order—we ought to ignore the clear subtext of the president’s statement. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma described Trump’s actions on behalf of Flynn as a “light touch.” Other Republican committee members, like Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and John McCain of Arizona, steered the conversation toward the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Still others, like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, defended Trump’s actions, blasting leaks to the press as efforts to undermine his administration.
Republican committee members were aided in all of this by the official organs of the GOP, which treated the hearings as a distraction—a partisan frivolity driven by Democrats and the press. “Director Comey’s opening statement confirms he told President Trump three times that he was not under investigation,” said a statement from the Republican National Committee that recommended a strategy of deflection. The RNC additionally argued that “Director Comey lost confidence of both sides of the aisle, and the president was justified in firing him.” House Speaker Paul Ryan, commenting on the procedures, defended Trump’s potentially illegal behavior as the mistakes of a novice. “He’s just new to this, and probably wasn’t steeped in long-running protocols,” he said.
Congress is tasked with executive oversight. Congress is supposed to intervene when presidents and their officials violate laws, norms, and standards of conduct. Instead, virtually the entire Republican Party is running interference on behalf of a president who, by his own account, fired the FBI director in order to block the investigation into Russia and protect his friends and associates. Congressional Republicans have taken, essentially, a “see no evil” position on actions that in any other circumstance they would view as illegal. For Republicans, it seems, rule of law is less important than partisan loyalty.
Indeed, there’s every indication that these Republicans see and understand the problem. Rubio, himself, blasted Trump throughout the presidential campaign. But he, like his colleagues, has made a choice to cover for Trump and defend his conduct, regardless of what that means for the country. It goes beyond Comey and Russia. Few Republicans have any appetite to deal with Trump’s financial entanglements, his vast conflicts of interest, or his now-routine siphoning of federal funds to his private properties and resorts.
James Comey’s sworn Senate testimony, both written and spoken, is evidence of one political crisis: A president with little regard for rule of law who sees no problem in bringing his influence and authority to bear on federal investigations. The Republican reaction—the effort to protect Trump and discredit Comey—is evidence of another: a crisis of ultra-partisanship, where the nation’s governing party has opted against oversight and accountability, abdicating its role in our system of checks and balances and allowing that president free rein, as long as he signs its legislation and nominates its judges.
Americans face two major crises, each feeding into the other. Republicans aren’t bound to partisan loyalty. They can choose country over party, rule of law over ideology. But they won’t, and the rest of us will pay for it.