Donald Trump just staked his presidency on 4 words
Washington (CNN)At a joint news conference with Colombian President Juan Manual Santos Thursday, President Donald Trump was asked a very simple question: Had he urged then-FBI Director James Comey to slow or stop an FBI investigation into deposed national security adviser Michael Flynn?
“No. No. Next question,” Trump responded.
It was over in a flash. But in those four words, Trump staked the viability of his presidency.
Why? Because he directly contradicted the reporting around a memo that Comey had written in the wake of a February 14 meeting in which Trump told him to see if he could find a way to end the Flynn investigation, The New York Times first reported and CNN confirmed.
Both of those things can’t be true.
Comey, who was fired by Trump 10 days ago, is expected at some point in the not-too-distant future to come to Congress and testify about his meetings with Trump. And the relevant congressional committees have already requested the February 14 memo as well as any other memos — and CNN has reported there are more of them — that Comey wrote about his interactions with Trump.
Between his testimony and the memo(s), Comey’s side of the story is going to get out there. And, presuming that what we know of the February 14 memo is true, then Trump’s former FBI director will be on record directly disagreeing with the President’s version of events.
By issuing such a blanket denial, Trump leaves himself very little wiggle room. In order for Trump to emerge unscathed, there can be no evidence that emerges that props up Comey’s side of the story. Anything that shows Trump was not being entirely truthful with his “no, no, next question” response calls into question his credibility on a whole range of issues and could well lead to open revolt from within his own party.
Trump’s situation here is not dissimilar to that of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of the early Trump converts. After the news broke that two of Christie’s top gubernatorial aides had been involved in a political payback ploy that involved closing lanes of traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Christie went on record to say he was totally unaware of any of this plotting.
Had anything come out that proved Christie even slightly wrong in that total denial, it would have been curtains for his political career. It never did — and Christie survived. (As it was, the Bridgegate scandal badly hamstrung Christie and he never was a real factor in the 2016 race.)
In short: The story of the February 14 meeting is currently a “he said, he said” one. If it never progresses beyond that, Trump will almost certainly survive, politically speaking. There will be plenty of grumbles from Republicans — many of whom are on the record praising Comey as a trustworthy guy and able public servant — but short of evidence that tilts the scales in Comey’s favor, it will be very hard to abandon Trump.
If, on the other hand, tapes — like the sort Trump floated he might have of his conversations with Comey — or any other sort of documented evidence emerges that poke holes in Trump’s four-word denial, he and his presidency will be in deep trouble.
Donald Trump is a gambler by nature. Repeatedly during his presidential campaign, and now in the White House, he has rolled the dice and reacted once they settled. But, whether he realized it at the time or not, Trump placed the biggest bet of his political career on Thursday.
Boston Globe Fact Checks:
Donald Trump’s latest assertions about the Russia investigation are questionable on a number of fronts.
For one, he’s claiming his political adversaries agree with him that there was no collusion between his presidential campaign and Russians. His critics are not at all convinced of that.
He’s also appearing to shift some responsibility for the firing of FBI chief James Comey to a Justice Department official. Earlier, he’d claimed sole ownership of that decision.
Joining Colombian counterpart Juan Manuel Santos in a news conference Thursday, the president also misstated the record on jobs and a violent national gang as well as on the matter that prompted the Justice Department a day earlier to appoint a special counsel with wide-ranging powers to investigate the Trump campaign and Russia.
THE FACTS: Democrats have not absolved Trump on whether his campaign and Russian officials coordinated efforts last year to disadvantage his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Several have said they have not seen evidence of collusion, but that’s not to say they are satisfied it did not happen.
Trump has cited James Clapper, the director of national intelligence until Trump took office Jan. 20, among others, as being ‘‘convinced’’ there was no collusion.
Clapper said this week that while a report he issued in January did not uncover collusion, he did not know at the time that the FBI was digging deeply into ‘‘potential political collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians’’ and he was unaware of what the bureau might have found. The FBI inquiry continues, as do congressional investigations and, now, one by the special counsel.
—On his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey: ‘‘I actually thought when I made that decision — and I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.’’
THE FACTS: The recommendation Trump cites behind his decision was written after he’d already made up his mind, according to Rosenstein and to Trump’s own previous statement.
In an interview with NBC two days after the May 9 Comey dismissal, Trump said he had been planning to fire Comey for months, and linked it with the FBI’s Russia probe, saying, ‘‘In fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’’
On Thursday, Rosenstein told senators in a closed-door briefing that he had been informed of Trump’s decision to fire Comey before he wrote his memo providing a rationale for that act, said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
—Speaking of the MS-13 gang presence in the U.S.: ‘‘A horrible, horrible large group of gangs that have been let into our country over a fairly short period of time. … They’ve literally taken over towns and cities of the United States.’’
THE FACTS: His depiction of the gang as a foreign one ‘‘let into’’ the U.S. is not accurate.
The gang actually began in Los Angeles, according to a fact sheet from Trump’s own Justice Department, and ‘‘spread quickly across the country.’’ And it started not recently, but in the 1980s according to that same fact sheet.
The department indirectly credits the Obama administration, in its early years, with helping to rein in the group, largely made up of first-generation Salvadoran-Americans and Salvadoran nationals. It said: ‘‘Through the combined efforts of federal, state and local law enforcement, great progress was made diminishing or severely (disrupting) the gang within certain targeted areas of the U.S. by 2009 and 2010.’’
The U.S. carried out record deportations during the Obama administration and, on MS-13 specifically, took the unprecedented action of labeling the street gang a transnational criminal organization and announcing a freeze on its U.S. assets. Such actions were not enough to bring down the group and the Trump administration says it will do more.
—”You look at the tremendous number of jobs that are being announced.’’ — Thursday news conference
— ‘‘Jobs are pouring back into our country.’’ — speech Wednesday to the Coast Guard Academy
— ‘‘I inherited a mess. … Jobs are pouring out of the country.’’ — February news conference
— ‘‘Car companies coming back to U.S. JOBS! JOBS! JOBS!’’ — on Twitter, after Ford took steps to add about 800 jobs in the U.S. in January and March
THE FACTS: Trump’s rhetoric about jobs has changed, but the actual data about hiring haven’t. Job gains have been solid since Trump was inaugurated, averaging 185,000 a month from January through April, according to government figures. But that is the same pace of hiring as occurred in 2016, when Barack Obama was president, and slower than in 2014 and 2015, when more than 225,000 jobs a month were added, on average.
As for Ford, context is everything. After hailing the addition of some 800 jobs, Trump was silent after Ford announced Wednesday it plans to cut 1,400 non-factory jobs in North America and Asia. That will most likely outweigh the jobs added earlier.
Overall, presidents typically get far more credit or blame for the state of the economy than they deserve, economists say. And it is particularly unlikely that any president would have an impact after just four months on the job. But that hasn’t stopped Trump from taking credit.
‘‘Great jobs report today — it is all beginning to work!’’ he tweeted May 5, after the government reported that solid hiring in April had pushed the unemployment rate to a 10-year low. A spokesman said on the same day that ‘‘the president’s economic agenda of serious tax reform, slashing burdensome regulations, rebuilding our infrastructure and negotiating fairer trade deals is adding jobs.’’
While Trump, with the help of the GOP Congress, has taken some minor steps on deregulation, little progress has been made on taxes, infrastructure or trade.