News analysis

Special counsel key to slow political drama

No definitive outcome despite bruising revelations in ex-FBI chief's testimony

Former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington made for bruising political drama - but produced no definitive outcome.

The key to that may be in the hands of Mr Robert Mueller, a special counsel appointed on May 17 to oversee the FBI's investigation into alleged links that top figures in President Donald Trump's camp may have had with Russia.

As Mr Comey detailed what he clearly saw as the President's attempts to influence him, and condemned Mr Trump's "lies" about the FBI during Thursday's hearing, the President was uncharacteristically silent on Twitter.

But the morning after, he surfaced, tweeting: "Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication... and WOW, Comey is a leaker!"

Thus, the events , while not leaving Mr Trump unscathed, did little to shake him.

Republican strategist and commentator Evan Siegfried said: "If this is a five-act play, we are not even halfway through the first act."

Dr Glenn Altschuler, professor of American Studies at Cornell University, told The Straits Times: "We are in for a protracted struggle. There may be a revelation a day, but it is a crisis in slow motion."

Mr Trump's morning-after tweet was a reference to Mr Comey's admission that he passed the contents of a memo to a friend, with the intention of leaking it to the media to trigger the appointment of a special counsel - which duly took place in the shape of the highly respected Mr Mueller.

The memo described a meeting in which the President asked all others present to leave the Oval Office and, when alone with Mr Comey, asked him to go easy on his investigation of Mr Michael Flynn, a former general and the national security adviser who resigned under a cloud after he misled the Vice-President on his contacts with a Russian diplomat in Washington.

The memo was not classified, and Mr Comey had already been fired by the President and was thus a private citizen. Analysts say passing it to the media through a friend was something that is par for the course in Washington - giving inside information to the media to manipulate the news.

But Mr Trump's attorney, Mr Marc Kasowitz, pounced on the admission, saying the former FBI chief had "unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorised disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the President".

Furthermore, he said, "Mr 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".

Each side took what they wanted from the testimony. Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich told reporters: "I think there is enough there that we should be very, very concerned about what went on.

"I think Bob Mueller will be able to answer that question (whether there is obstruction of justice), and I trust him to answer it accurately."

Republican Senator Marco Rubio told reporters: "I don't think anybody would leave this hearing and say to you that what the President said in the Oval Office on the Feb 14 was appropriate.

"Whether it rises to criminality, I think there are significant doubts about what rises to that level."

Mr Siegfried told The Straits Times on the phone: "To have the President of the United States being called a liar by the former director of the FBI, and that former director saying he believes he was fired because of his Russia investigations, is a public relations fiasco for the White House."

But from a legal perspective, nothing had changed, he said. "Nobody is moving any closer to or away from impeachment. Overall, nothing has changed, and no minds have changed.

"Comey said today that Mueller has the memos he wrote about his interactions with Trump. Nothing will happen without Mueller."

Despite that, some Republicans were feeling an underlying discomfort, which they would avoid expressing in public, he acknowledged.

Dr Altschuler said: "Certainly, some Republicans will be feeling dismayed, because they don't know what shoe is about to drop.

"But right now, they still feel they are tethered to President Trump."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2017, with the headline Special counsel key to slow political drama. Subscribe