James Comey’s written testimony outlining meetings and conversations with President Trump was telling and damning because believable. Whatever Mr. Comey’s reputation, and it is mixed—an intelligent, accomplished professional who is plenty slick; state-of-the-art Beltway operator with an image of integrity, yet trailed by suspicions of slight smarm—he is a careful man. It is not strange for an official to take notes after a meeting or conversation with a president, and it is wholly understandable when the president is unusual, the circumstances heightened, the relationship potentially contentious. It begs credulity that Mr. Comey would have tapped out elaborate fictions in a one-man note-taking plot to bring down a president. And he must have known it possible the calls and meetings were taped, in which case the contents would be used to destroy him if he lied.
Mr. Comey first met with President-elect Trump in January. Afterward he broke with previous personal practice and documented the meeting in a memo. “To ensure accuracy, I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting.”
On Jan. 27 he had dinner with the president at the White House. “It turned out to be just the two of us, seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room.” The president asked if he wanted to stay on as FBI Director. Mr. Comey found this “strange,” because Mr. Trump had already told him twice, earlier, he hoped Mr. Comey would stay. The director felt “the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.”
Then: “A few moments later, the President said, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.’ I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.”
Near the end of the dinner Mr. Trump said he was glad Mr. Comey wanted to stay. “He then said, ‘I need loyalty.’ I replied, ‘You will always get honesty from me.’ [Mr. Trump] paused and then said, ‘That’s what I want, honest loyalty.’ I paused and then said, ‘You will get that from me.’ ”
On Feb. 14 Mr. Comey met the president and other top officials for a counterterrorism briefing in the Oval Office. At the end the president said he wanted to speak to Mr. Comey privately. Attorney General Jeff Sessions lingered; the president said he wanted Mr. Comey alone.
“When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone, the President began by saying, ‘I want to speak about Mike Flynn. ’ ” The president said: “He is a good guy and has been through a lot.” Referring to the Russia investigation, Mr. Trump said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go.” Mr. Comey agreed Mr. Flynn was a good guy, but didn’t say he’d let it go.
Mr. Comey thought the meeting “very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.” Later he told his boss, the attorney general, that it was “inappropriate” that Mr. Sessions was asked to leave the meeting and “it should never happen again.” Mr. Sessions did not reply, Mr. Comey reports.
On March 30, the president phoned Mr. Comey at the FBI. He said the Russia investigation was damaging his ability to govern. “He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud.’ ” Mr. Comey answered that they were investigating the matter as quickly as possible. Mr. Trump urged Mr. Comey to get out the word the president himself wasn’t being investigated. “I told him I would see what we could do.” He requested guidance from the Justice Department, which did not provide it.
Mr. Comey’s testimony backs up Mr. Trump’s assertion that the director told him he personally was not under investigation.
The worst part of the testimony is when the president pressed Mr. Comey for his personal loyalty. Presidents don’t lean on FBI chiefs in this way. It is at odds with traditional boundaries, understandings and protocols. It was embarrassing to read. It was the move of a naïf who’s a cynic—I know how the big boys play. Actually it’s not how the big boys play, it’s how someone who learns about government by binge-watching “House of Cards” would play. It was bumptious with the special bumptiousness of those who think themselves savvy.
Still, as a Republican senator said after Mr. Comey’s testimony was released, inappropriate does not mean illegal. Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, wrote in USA Today that the desire for an indictable or impeachable offense by the president “has distorted the legal analysis” of the case “to an alarming degree.” Mr. Turley’s read on the testimony: Mr. Trump’s conduct was “wildly inappropriate.” Asking Mr. Comey to lay off Mr. Flynn was “wrong” and “grossly improper.” But “the legal fact is that Comey’s testimony does not establish a prima facie—or even a strong—case for obstruction [of justice].” This is not the first president “to express dissatisfaction with an investigation by the Justice Department”: Bill Clinton did the same. Nor was it a surprise he wished to see the investigations end: He’d said so publicly.
On Thursday Mr. Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he had authorized leaks about his memos after the president had tweeted a warning: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press.” Mr. Comey realized there might be corroboration. Thursday he said, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” (That was rather Comey, to pull out the “Lordy.”) He asked if they exist that they be released.
In the end Mr. Comey appears to have done himself little or no harm, but he harmed the president by documenting, again and persuasively, that Mr. Trump does not understand the norms, rules and traditions of his job. As I watched, I wondered how many other appointees, officials and White House staffers are writing themselves memos.
Will all this damage the president with his supporters?
What consumes Blue America does not consume Red America.
The photojournalist Chris Arnade reported on Twitter what he was seeing in Mountain Grove, Mo., Thursday morning as Mr. Comey testified. The conversation at the local McDonald’s : “1.)Yard work/lawn mowers, 2) Danger of Bees, 3) Cardinals sucking, 4) Friend who died, 5) Church.” He asked a middle aged man in a T-shirt if he planned to watch the hearings. Kirk said no: “I got a lot of yards to mow.”
Then again, a conservative intellectual with small-town roots wrote, during the testimony, that he thought this might be a break point, a moment when Mr. Trump’s supporters would listen close and think he’s not so much like them, and not so different from the swamp he means to drain.
I myself don’t know.