Fact check: True, but likely not a comprehensive list. For some strange reason, CNN held an election-style town hall featuring former FBI director James Comey last night, with questions covering the gamut of the now-closed Russiagate investigation. This format is used by the broadcaster almost exclusively for presidential candidates these days. Does CNN believe that Comey’s running for office? Or perhaps running from something else?
At any rate, the very first question that came to Comey from the audience after a lengthy interview with Anderson Cooper didn’t have to do with Russia, but with biased investigators. Hilariously, Cooper felt as though he had to explain who Peter Strzok and Lisa Page are before taking the question, a point which reflects not only on Cooper’s lack of interest in the topic during the interview period but also on Cooper’s apparent impression that CNN viewers aren’t terribly well informed.
COOPER: We’ve got a question — I want to preface a little bit just for our viewers at home, in case they haven’t been following it. The question is going to be about Peter Strzok and Lisa Page and Andrew McCabe. Just for folks at home, Strzok and Page are former FBI officials who exchanged texts bashing then-candidate Trump in 2016, raising questions of bias. Strzok played a key role in the Hillary Clinton investigation, worked briefly on Mueller’s team. Strzok was eventually fired. Page resigned. McCabe was Direct Comey’s deputy at the FBI, lied to internal investigators about leaking information to the press. He was fired last year.
“In case they haven’t been following it”? The two have been headline material for months and got hauled into Congress to explain themselves. One doesn’t have to watch Fox News to know who Strzok and Page are and their significance to an investigation that ended up proving nothing at all. If CNN viewers aren’t well informed on Strzok and Page, whose fault is that?
Comey told the questioner — herself a law-enforcement expert that acts as an outside consultant to several agencies — that Strzok and Page got what they deserved for their inability to separate their political opinions from their work. Comey defended Andrew McCabe on this point, however, saying that the pair would “never let him see” those texts for fear of getting fired by McCabe. Given that McCabe himself was fired for lying to investigators, that might be a bit tough to credit.
Cooper followed up with a more specific question about Strzok and Page, and its impact on the FBI’s credibility in this probe:
COOPER: So do you acknowledge that this whole episode with Strzok and Page, that it damaged the reputation of the FBI and perhaps tarnished the investigation?
COMEY: Definitely. Yeah, very painful. It was important that it be investigated and important that there be discipline that follows it, but, yeah, it made us all look bad. Peter Strzok is a very talented agent. It’s a personal tragedy for him. But as much as I care about individuals, I care about the institution more. It hurt the institution.
Cooper also hits the Steele dossier, but only briefly, and only to allow Comey to defend some earlier comments made shortly after he got fired. Cooper mentions that the Mueller team couldn’t verify most of the dossier, but Comey says he was working on that effort when he got fired. Nothing is mentioned about the origins of the dossier nor how much the FBI knew was false when relying on it for the FISA warrant on Carter Page. That small portion of the town hall wasn’t just a softball, it was a snowball.
However, Cooper gives Comey plenty of room to explain how Donald Trump “eats your soul in small bites”:
COOPER: I want to follow up on that, because you wrote something that I found really interesting. You wrote an op-ed in the New York Times last week. It’s called “How Trump Coopts Leaders like Big Barr.” And in it, you said, part of it, you said, quote, “Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump, and that adds up to something they will never recover from. It takes character, like Mr. Mattis’, to avoid the damage because Mr. Trump eats your soul in small bites.” I mean, explain how you believe the president of the United States is eating peoples’ souls and how that process takes place.
COMEY: Yeah. And it doesn’t make me happy to write that, but it’s what I believe. This president, because he’s an amoral leader, shapes those around him. And that shaping sometimes pushes out someone who is a strong person of integrity who stands up and says, “Not going to have it,” but far more often, it shapes and bends and pulls in weaker souls. And he does it. I’ve seen him — it’s happened to me. The man lies constantly. In public, you’ve seen it. In private, the same thing happened. And he talks constantly. And so I sat there at dinner with him and he went on about how he had the biggest inauguration crowd in history, he didn’t make fun of a disabled reporter, and all of these lies are coming at you. And you’re sitting there over your salad, thinking, “That’s not true, that’s not true, that’s not true.”
But you don’t interrupt the president of the United States and say, “Mr. President, I saw the tape, you made fun of a disabled reporter.” Instead, it washes over you. And all of a sudden, you finish the dinner or the meeting and you realize, “Oh, my god, I’m part of a silent circle of assent. Did I just agree that that’s true because I didn’t speak?” And then there are ritual — these rituals of praise of the leader. And pretty soon you’re wrapped so tightly in this web that there’s no way out for you.
This isn’t probably far from the truth, as anyone who honestly watches Trump in public should know. It’s also probably not far from the truth for many politicians, perhaps even a couple who have risen to the office of the president — or tried very hard to do so. Very few people rise that high without having some helium in their egos, although perhaps Trump might have more than most.
But does everyone in Trump’s circle become zombies, unable to distinguish truth from lies, light from darkness, and mayonnaise from Miracle Whip? Paul Mirengoff scoffs at the notion and points to the Mueller report for validation:
Comey must not have read Robert Mueller’s report very carefully. One of Mueller’s findings is that members of Trump’s team didn’t carry out his instructions when they believed the instructions were wrongful.
Don McGahn, then the White House counsel, is perhaps the main example, but he’s certainly not the only one. The report cites Jeff Sessions, Rod Rosenstein, Reince Priebus, Rob Porter, K.T. McFarland, and others, including Comey himself.
Even Cory Lewandowski was among the “refuseniks.” According to Mueller, Trump twice pressured Lewandowski to ask Sessions to give a speech walking back his recusal from the Russia investigation. Lewandowksi didn’t do it.
His soul, and those of the others, remained intact.
Clearly, Comey isn’t writing honestly about Trump’s team. Is he writing honestly about himself?
As Paul concludes, it’s more likely that Comey’s trying to pin this characterization on William Barr. The attorney general is presently looking much more closely at the FBI’s handling of the Steele dossier and its use in getting FISA warrants, and the answers to those questions might put James Comey himself on the list of people who made the FBI look bad. It’s a shame that Cooper didn’t think to ask those questions last night, but given CNN’s weird promotion of Comey as a town hall star, it’s not terribly surprising.