The Washington Post claimed former FBI Director James Comey laid out an obstruction of justice case against President Trump in testimony before Congress Thursday, although Comey explicitly declined to make the obstruction charge.
“James Comey lays out the case that President Trump obstructed justice,” reads the Washington Post headline blasted out in push notifications and placed prominently on the front page of the website.
But Sen. Joe Manchin asked Comey quite directly whether he believes Trump’s behavior constitutes obstruction of justice in the hearing, and Comey declined to make that judgment call.
“Do you believe this rises to obstruction of justice?” Manchin asked, referring to Comey’s claim Trump asked him to shift the FBI probe away from then-national security adviser Mike Flynn.
“I don’t know,” Comey replied. “That’s Bob Mueller’s job to sort that out.”
The Justice Department appointed Mueller in May as special counsel to oversee the investigation into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials, after Trump fired Comey and the alleged conversation regarding Flynn came to light.
Comey made it clear in the hearing that he was uncomfortable with the conversation regarding Flynn, in which he says Trump stated he “hopes” the FBI “let” “go” of the Flynn probe, because he took it as an implicit order. But he conceded when pressed that Trump did not technically ask him to do anything.
“You may have taken it as a direction but that’s not what he said,” Sen. Jim Risch said, seeking clarification from Comey.
“Correct,” Comey replied.
He also said that Trump has the “legal authority” to explicitly order him to end the investigation.
“If the president wanted to stop an investigation, how would he do that? … ” Sen. James Lankford asked Comey.
“I’m not a legal scholar, but as a legal matter, the president is the head of the executive branch and could direct, in theory — we have important norms against this … I think he has the legal authority,” Comey replied. “All of us ultimately report in the executive branch to the president.”
Lankford asked for further clarification: “Would that be to you, or the attorney general or who?”
“I suppose he could, if he wanted to issue a direct order, could do it any way,” Comey said. “Through the attorney general or issue it directly to me.”
Later in the hearing, Comey said outright Trump at no point asked him to end the Russia investigation as a whole, refuting a key part of the obstruction narrative regarding Trump’s interference.
There’s no doubt Comey was very uncomfortable with Trump’s behavior, and he certainly didn’t rule out an obstruction of justice charge against Trump. And his testimony could be used to help build an obstruction of justice case. But to state flatly in a headline that he made an obstruction case against Trump is a mischaracterization of his remarks.
The Washington Post reporter who wrote the story concedes as much right off the bat.
Comey “essentially” laid out an obstruction case, Matt Zapatosky writes in the lead, adding in a major qualifier conspicuously absent from the headline. And he adds: “Comey did not explicitly draw any legal conclusions.”
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