Donald Trump

Trump May Commit a Felony to Cover Up Nonexistent Crimes

The president's implausible and gratuitous contradiction of Comey could be a crime if he repeats it to federal investigators.


White House

During a press conference on Friday, Donald Trump claimed former FBI Director James Comey's Senate testimony last week showed there was "no collusion" between his presidential campaign and Russian operatives who tried to help him win.

Trump said it was also clear from Comey's account of his interactions with the president that there was "no obstruction" of the FBI's investigation into Russian meddling in the election.

Comey's testimony did not in fact prove either of those propositions. They may nevertheless be true.

Based on what we know at this point, it is entirely possible that none of Trump's associates had anything to do with the Russian operation. It is also entirely possible that Trump's conversations with Comey did not amount to obstruction of justice. But Trump is now setting himself up to commit a felony by lying about those conversations to federal investigators.

Reiterating what his personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, had said the day before, Trump denied asking Comey to drop the FBI's investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. "I didn't say that," he said.

Trump is not merely saying that he never ordered Comey to drop the investigation. He is saying that he never said anything like the quotation that Comey attributes to him: "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go." As Kasowitz put it, "The President never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including suggesting that Mr. Comey 'let Flynn go.'"

Trump also emphatically denied that he had asked Comey for his loyalty. "I hardly know the man," he said. "I'm not going to say, 'I want you to pledge allegiance.' Who would do that? Who would ask a man to pledge allegiance under oath? I mean, think of it. I hardly know the man. It doesn't make sense. No, I didn't say that, and I didn't say the other."

Asked if he would be "willing to speak under oath to give your version of those events," Trump responded, "One hundred percent." Asked if he would repeat his denials to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian election interference as well as possible obstruction of that probe, Trump said, "I would be glad to tell him exactly what I just told you."

Assuming Trump follows through on that commitment and assuming that Comey is telling the truth (more on that in a minute), the president would be committing a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

Notably, Trump maintains that it would have been perfectly appropriate for him to intercede on Flynn's behalf. "There would be nothing wrong if I did say it, according to everybody that I've read today," he said at the press conference, confusing the argument that he did nothing illegal with the argument that he did nothing improper. Trump takes a similar view of asking for Comey's loyalty. "No, no, I didn't," Trump said on Fox News last month. "But I don't think it would be a bad question to ask." (That is rather different from what he said on Friday, when he described the very notion as absurd.)

By Trump's own account, then, contradicting Comey's account of his statements is totally unnecessary. Yet that is what he seems determined to do.

Given Trump's unambiguous denials, there is not much room here for misremembering or misinterpretation. One of these men has to be lying. Despite the lack of firsthand evidence, there can be little doubt which one it is.

No one else was present for these conversations, and Trump's suggestion that they might have been surreptitiously recorded is almost certainly a bluff. "You're going to be very disappointed when you hear the answer," he told a reporter who asked about the hypothetical "tapes" he mentioned in a May 12 tweet.

Yet Comey's reaction to the possibility of an audio record enhances his credibility. "Lordy, I hope there are tapes," he said in his testimony before the Senate Intelligene Committee on Thursday. "The president surely knows if there are tapes. If there are, my feelings aren't hurt. Release the tapes."

Comey took contemporaneous notes that are consistent with his testimony, and he apparently discussed the conversations with other FBI officials at the time. Several witnesses, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, can confirm that the president insisted on talking to Comey alone when they discussed Flynn and that Comey was uncomfortable with his overtures.

Trump's own son, Donald Jr., already has contradicted his father's account of what he said about Flynn. "When [my father] tells you to do something, guess what, there's no ambiguity in it," the younger Trump said in a Fox News interview on Saturday. "There's no, 'Hey I'm hoping.' …'Hey, I hope this happens, but you get to do your job.' That's what he told Comey."

That defense is one way to rebut the charge that the president tried to obstruct justice. But it is not the defense that he and his lawyer have chosen. They are not saying that "I hope" fell short of a command. They are saying Trump never said it, period.

Of all the considerations that weigh in favor of believing Comey rather than Trump, the most important one is this: Only one of these men is a notorious liar, a man prone to prevarication about matters great and small, no matter how readily his statements can be disproved.

"I can definitively say the president is not a liar," Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters on Thursday. "It's frankly insulting that that question would be asked." The briefing was off camera, so I don't know whether Sanders was able to say that with a straight face. As a counterproductive defense, "the president is not a liar" ranks with "I'm not a crook." If you have to say it, you are already in serious trouble.

Just how serious is apparent from Trump's insistence that Comey's testimony vindicated him. Kasowitz noted that Comey recalled Trump saying "it would be good to find out" if there were "some 'satellite' associates of his who did something wrong" in connection with Russia and the election.

Kasowitz also pointed out that Comey "has now finally confirmed publicly what he repeatedly told the president privately: The president was not under investigation as part of any probe into Russian interference." Kasowitz wants us to view Comey as a reliable source when it comes to statements that count in Trump's favor and as a baldfaced liar when it comes to statements that make him look bad.

Yet Comey's willingness to concede points helpful to Trump—that he raised the Flynn investigation only once, for instance, or that he never broached the subject of the broader Russia investigation—makes his story all the more believable.

It's not clear why Trump is intent on contradicting Comey's account when he could agree with it and still mount a credible defense. But he seems to have trouble thinking clearly about anything related to the Russia investigation, which threatens his ego by raising the possibility that he might not have won the election without foreign interference.

"Yesterday showed no collusion, no obstruction," the president told reporters on Friday. "We are doing really well. That was an excuse by the Democrats who lost an election that some people think they shouldn't have lost, because it's almost impossible for the Democrats to lose the Electoral College, as you know. We have to run up the whole East Coast and you have to win everything as a Republican. And that's just what we did. So it was just an excuse. But we were very, very happy. And frankly, James Comey confirmed a lot of what I said. And some of the things that he said just weren't true."

Trump said that in response to this question: "Why [do] you feel that [Comey's] testimony vindicated you when it really boils down to his word against your word?" Logically speaking, the question of what Trump said to Comey about Flynn is distinct from the question of whether the Trump campaign was in touch with Russian email hackers, which is in turn distinct from the question of whether the embarrassing material they stole had a decisive impact on the election.

But it all seems to be jumbled together in Trump's mind, which may help explain why he could be on the verge of committing a felony to cover up nonexistent crimes.