Why you should care
Because James Comey’s moment won’t be the last spotlight hearing.
A beanpole Oregon Democrat who’s been in Congress since 1981, Sen. Ron Wyden has a knack for drawing out classified information he wants aired in public. In 2013 he asked then–Director of National Intelligence James Clapper whether the National Security Agency collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Clapper told him no, a lie later exposed by revelations about the NSA’s telephone metadata program, which Wyden knew about from classified briefings.
On Thursday, Wyden’s role in a blockbuster hearing with sacked FBI Director James Comey was to show where the Senate’s investigatory tentacles are heading — along with, perhaps, the criminal inquiry by special counsel Robert Mueller. The vice president and attorney general are now on notice.
Who else is in the crosshairs? Anyone involved in the firing of Comey.
Comey was compelling, with his awkward-romance-novel memos describing his interactions with Donald Trump, but Democrats shouldn’t rejoice yet about impeaching the president for obstructing justice on Michael Flynn. Putting aside the fact that Trump’s approval rating among Republicans would have to erode considerably before Republicans would even dream of the I-word, what exactly did Trump obstruct here? Once derided as “Little Marco,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio transformed into Trump’s ablest defender on Thursday with this description of what Comey faced: “Going back, the three requests were: No. 1, be loyal. No. 2, let the Mike Flynn thing go. He is a good guy, been treated unfairly. No. 3, can you please tell the American people what these leaders in Congress already know, which you already know and what you told me three times — that [Trump’s] not personally under investigation?”
As for Trump pressing Comey on Flynn, Rubio noted that the president said the same thing publicly. Comey didn’t tell his own investigators about the conversation, he said, to protect them from undue influence. But as Rubio pointed out, they were surely aware via the media that Trump wanted the inquiry into whether Flynn lied to government officials about his Russia contacts to go away. In either case, Comey confirmed Trump’s words had no impact on the Flynn probe.
Rubio’s questioning was followed by Wyden, who asked Comey why, after Trump told him to “let go” of the Flynn case, he didn’t go to his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “What was it about the attorney general’s interactions with the Russians or his behavior with regard to the investigation that would have led the entire leadership of the FBI to make this decision?” Comey’s response left bread crumbs that the media will surely follow. “We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting that would make [Sessions’] continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic,” Comey said, indicating that he would elaborate in an afternoon classified briefing.
Wyden also asked about Vice President Mike Pence, noting the Indiana native’s role in leading the transition and asking whether Pence was “aware of the concerns about Michael Flynn prior to or during General Flynn’s tenure as national security adviser?” Comey said yes, he had gotten that impression from Sally Yates — the fired acting attorney general who already testified to warning the White House in January that Flynn had lied to Pence about his Russia contacts. Wyden’s question hints that Pence might have known something even sooner, during the transition, about Flynn or other Russia contacts. Pence and Sessions now become even larger targets as the investigation rambles on.
Who else is in the crosshairs? Anyone involved in the firing of Comey — which Trump admitted in an NBC News interview was motivated, at least in part, by the Russia investigation. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, along with Sessions, wrote memos supporting the firing, and other members of Trump’s inner circle likely weighed in.
For more fireworks, Washington awaits presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, who reportedly had several contacts with Russians during the transition and is cooperating with the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Russia “cloud” Trump was so keen to have Comey lift is not going anywhere.