Sacked FBI chief James Comey's political shrewdness is on display in tussle with Trump

James Comey testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill.
James Comey testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The morning, at least, seemed to go reasonably well for President Donald Trump. He announced a new FBI director, and two intelligence chiefs told Congress the president had never pressured them to interfere in the investigation into Russian election meddling.

And then James Comey, the FBI director who was fired by Trump last month while leading an investigation into the president's associates, dropped the hammer.

By authorising the immediate release of the opening statement he plans to give in his much anticipated appearance before a congressional committee on Thursday, he instantly changed the conversation back to his assertion that the president tried to shut down part of the FBI investigation.

Trump may be relatively new to Washington, but Comey is not.

A savvy veteran of the capital who has worked in high positions in multiple administrations, he has usually emerged on top in any internal power struggle. And in the month since his dismissal, Comey has shown why presidents are normally loath to fire FBI directors.

The release of Comey's statement and the prospect of his televised testimony left the White House on the defensive Wednesday. The president's nomination of Christopher Wray to lead the FBI and his trip to Ohio to discuss infrastructure were overshadowed, and White House aides were left grumbling about the coming spectacle of a longtime lawman accusing the commander in chief of actions that some lawyers call obstruction of justice.

 
 
 

"At every turn since his firing, Comey has played his hand perfectly, controlling the narrative and preserving his well-earned reputation for integrity and professionalism, while Trump has only made his situation worse every time he opened his mouth or logged onto Twitter," said Dan Pfeiffer, who was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama.

In effect, Comey's account of his interactions with Trump stepped on testimony by Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, and Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the National Security Agency director, that they did not feel pressured by the president to intervene in the investigation into whether his associates collaborated with Russia during or after last year's election (although neither would deny that Trump had asked).

"I did find the timing of the release a little bit interesting, directly after testimony," Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokeswoman, told reporters on Air Force One as the president returned from Cincinnati.

By the end of the day, Trump's team sought to make the best of the situation by releasing a statement from his lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, focusing on the part of Comey's statement confirming that he had assured the president that he was not personally under investigation.

"The president feels completely and totally vindicated," Kasowitz said, making no mention of the part of Comey's statement asserting that the president tried to shut down an investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

But the statement released by Kasowitz illustrated the circular nature of Washington power contests. It was distributed by Mark Corallo, a longtime Republican operative who started working for Kasowitz on Wednesday. Corallo has been a shrewd and tough player in other big Washington conflicts, including as spokesman for Representative Robert L. Livingston, a top House Republican who was set to become speaker during President Bill Clinton's impeachment in 1998 but had to resign because of his own sex scandal.

Corallo later served as spokesman for Attorney General John Ashcroft under President George W. Bush, making him an ally of Comey's during the 2004 episode that made the future FBI director famous.

Comey was deputy attorney general at the time and, in another much-watched congressional hearing, described a dramatic confrontation in the hospital room of an ailing Ashcroft. Comey testified that he had helped stop top aides to Bush from pressuring Ashcroft into reauthorising a secret surveillance programme the Justice Department had deemed illegal.

In the Washington-is-a-small-world department, the FBI director at the time, who was another ally of Comey's in that conflict, was Robert S. Mueller III. Mueller is now the special counsel investigating the Russia matter - which could include Trump's decision to fire Comey.

Into this city of hardened political warriors with intermingled histories has come Trump, a first-time politician who, according to his own advisers, had little sense of the trouble he was buying for himself when he fired Comey. In the last four weeks, news stories attributed to unnamed associates of Comey have described his dealings with the president in damaging terms, while Trump has failed to quell the furor over the decision to dismiss him.

The president's allies cited that inexperience to defend him on Wednesday. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey described Trump's comments to Comey as the product of a political novice who did not understand how they would be taken. "What you're seeing is a president who is now very publicly learning about the way people react to what he considers to be normal New York City conversation," Christie told Nicolle Wallace on MSNBC's "Deadline: White House." The mood among Trump's staff and shrinking roster of outside surrogates was one of apprehension, not panic. Some said Comey's statement was even something of a relief because it did not contain any bigger surprises.

Trump started the day by announcing his selection of Wray, a former assistant attorney general under Bush and personal lawyer for Christie, to succeed Comey as FBI director.

While under no illusions that it would overshadow Comey's coming testimony, Trump and his advisers were elated by the generally positive response to Wray. Trump compared it to the reaction to his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, advisers said.

Trump then flew to Cincinnati to deliver a forceful "America First" message as he promoted his infrastructure plan, although it has yet to be fully fleshed out.

Like many of his speeches, Trump's pitch at Rivertowne Marina was a wandering assortment of self-defences, attacks and non sequiturs that bumped into each other like untethered barges.

He began by attacking Democrats for blocking his health care Bill, calling them "obstructionists," then congratulated himself for winning Ohio "not by a little, by a lot."

He trumpeted a major insurer's pullout from health insurance exchanges here as proof of the Affordable Care Act's "death spiral", and predicted that deals he had made on his overseas trip last month would create "millions of jobs."

Just as he has shrugged off pleas by lawyers, aides and Republican allies to curtail his use of Twitter, he frequently disregarded the teleprompter during his speech, and invited two old New York real estate friends, Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth, onto the dais.

West Wing aides said the plan was to keep Trump busy during the hearing on Thursday in hopes of preventing errant tweets. During the testimony, Trump is scheduled to address the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative religious group meeting in Washington.

But that presents the risk that Trump's view of the hearing will be shaped after the fact by what he sees on cable television, whose coverage he voraciously consumes these days.

And aides hardly imagine that Trump will let Comey have the last word.