Pub patrons watching Comey tried to swallow what's at stake

Patrons of Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar on Passyunk Ave. watch former FBI director James Comey testify.

Party-like activities related to the Senate Intelligence Committee interrogation of former FBI Director James B. Comey — including Washington pubs and bars opening early to accommodate patrons who wanted to wash down live TV coverage of the hearing with beers and shots — belied the gravity of Thursday’s proceedings.

Comey called President Trump a liar. “The administration chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray” Comey said in excoriating Trump’s excuse for firing him a month ago. “Those were lies, plain and simple.”

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders later responded that, “I can definitively say the president is not a liar.” But her words didn’t blunt the implication of Comey’s charge. In essence, he was saying this country cannot trust the words of its president. That has been suggested before, when facts seemed an afterthought in some of Trump’s hastily posted tweets, but not in the same context.

Comey’s testimony, as the intelligence committee considers allegations of Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, described Trump as someone who put loyalty to him above loyalty to the Constitution. He said Trump asked him in a Jan. 27 after-dinner conversation if he wanted to remain FBI director. “Which I found strange because he already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay,” Comey said.

After assuring Trump that he “loved my work and intended to stay and serve out my 10-year term,” Comey said he became anxious when Trump told him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” There was a long awkward silence, but later, as Comey was about to depart, Trump repeated, “I need loyalty.” Comey said, “You will always get honesty from me,” to which Trump replied, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.”

The conversation sounds like something the boss of a company would say to an underling who is expected to grovel to keep his job. Comey didn’t grovel, thus he’s out of a job.

The question now is whether Trump’s actions amounted to obstruction of justice. The president’s displeasure with Comey apparently heated up when the FBI wouldn’t let up on former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, who resigned in February after it was revealed that he had not been forthright about his contacts with Russian officials.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to let Flynn go. He is a good guy,” Comey says Trump said to him in a Feb. 14 conversation. “I did not say I would ‘let this go,'” said Comey. He added that he thought Trump was only referring to Flynn, and not the broader investigation into Russia’s influence on the election.

That distinction may help Trump avoid an obstruction charge. But as Comey noted, that will be for special counsel Robert Mueller to decide. Even if Trump avoids obstruction charges, his behavior has been outrageous. It evokes memories of another president who put himself above the law and paid by having to resign in disgrace.