Here's something you may have missed while you were googling "impeachment" last week: A Republican senator and a Democratic one coming as close as possible to saying President Trump is not under FBI investigation, without saying it.
The senators in question were the Senate's judiciary committee chairman, Chuck Grassley, and the ranking Democrat, Dianne Feinstein. They made their remarks Thursday -- about a week after then-FBI Director James Comey testified before the committee and refused to confirm or deny that the president was the subject of an FBI probe, and two days after Trump fired Comey and referred in his termination letter to the latter's assurances, "on three separate occasions," that the bureau was not investigating him.
I'm quoting the entirety of Grassley's prepared remarks about Trump and the FBI, even though they're going to make this post almost unbearably long, because I think it's important right now to read them in full:
"On a different topic, Mr. Comey testified before the Judiciary Committee last week. Senator Blumenthal asked him whether the FBI had ruled anyone out as a potential target of the investigation of allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. In response, Mr. Comey stated: 'Well, I haven't said anything publicly about who we've opened investigations on. I briefed the Chair and Ranking on who those people are.'
"Mr. Comey was asked if the FBI is investigating the President. He refused to answer. Mr. Comey said he didn't want people to over-interpret his refusal, but that he wasn't going to comment on anyone in particular. He thought it would put him on a slippery slope of having to answer who else is or is not under investigation. That could reveal who is being investigated.
"I understand why he took that position, but I don't agree -- at least not when it comes to the President and senior government officials. The American people deserve to know if senior government officials are under active criminal or intelligence investigation.
"Mr. Comey did brief Ranking Member Feinstein and me on who the targets of the various investigations are. It would not be appropriate for me to reveal those details before the professionals conducting the investigations are ready. So, I will not answer any questions about who are targets of the ongoing Russia investigations. But I will say this: Shortly after Director Comey briefed us, I tweeted that he should be transparent. I said he should tell the public what he told Senator Feinstein and me about whether the FBI is or is not investigating the President.
"On Tuesday, the President's letter said that Director Comey told him he was not under investigation. Senator Feinstein and I heard nothing that contradicted the President's statement. Now Mr. Comey is no longer the FBI director. But the FBI should still follow my advice. It should confirm to the public whether it is or is not investigating the President. Because it has failed to make this clear, speculation has run rampant.
"The intelligence community said that one of the Russians' goals is to undermine the American public's faith in our democratic institutions. Wild speculation that the FBI is targeting the President in a criminal or intelligence inquiry is not just irresponsible and unfounded. It provides aid and comfort to the Russians and their goal of undermining faith in our democracy.
"So, what I suggest is that before this Committee does anything more on this matter, that all the Members get briefed by the FBI on what is actually going on.
"Hopefully, that will help temper some of the unsubstantiated statements that have been made."
There's a lot to unpack there. It's worth noting right off the bat that Trump is not the only person in Washington who wanted to know if he was under investigation. Grassley and Feinstein also wanted to know, and were told. And there really is no room for interpretation in Grassley's remarks about what they were told:
- "Senator Feinstein and I heard nothing that contradicted the President's statement."
- "Wild speculation that the FBI is targeting the President in a criminal or intelligence inquiry is not just irresponsible and unfounded. It provides aid and comfort to the Russians and their goal of undermining faith in our democracy."
- "I suggest ... all the Members get briefed by the FBI on what is actually going on. Hopefully, that will help temper some of the unsubstantiated statements that have been made."
For her part, Feinstein replied with these remarks :
"Thanks very much, Mr. Chairman. I very much appreciate what you've said, and it's very accurate, and we were briefed. And the nature of the briefing was a counter-intelligence and criminal investigation that the FBI was carrying out, and more than that I will not say, either."
Folks, this is not Darrell Issa and Elijah Cummings accusing each other of ill intentions during a House hearing. It's the opposite of that: a Republican and a Democrat going about as far as they can go to warn their colleagues and others -- in the media and elsewhere -- from speculating about Trump in a way that undermines faith in our democratic institutions. Remember when I wrote last week that this is the time for Congress to do its job? This is Congress doing (part of) its job.
Let's pause here and note that, sometimes in the course of investigations, people who weren't the subject of a probe become the subject. It is within the realm of possibility that this could happen with Trump. But is it likely? After months of investigation, and given the obvious priority the FBI would place on knowing whether the president of the United States had colluded with a foreign power during his election campaign?
With all this in mind, let's consider one more time Trump's firing of Comey. On the one hand, we have Trump and now Grassley and Feinstein indicating he was not the subject of an investigation -- and no one saying, certainly not on the record and for attribution, that he was. On the other hand, we have a continued drip-drip-drip of stories about the probe -- most of them connected to Michael Flynn, the retired general who was briefly national security adviser before Trump fired him.
Imagine you're Trump, and you have been assured multiple times the investigation is not about you but (as far as we in the public are aware at this time) chiefly about someone who is already out of your administration because he lied about his interactions with representatives of the Russian government. And yet, you continue to see speculative news stories about possible wrongdoing by yourself. Would you not be frustrated? Would you not want to know why the FBI director continued to allow this speculation when he could end it? Would you not wonder if this made him (to use the word at the focus of the most inflamed criticisms of Trump) not loyal to the office of the president? Is there not room in the various accounts of Trump's supposedly impeachable dealings with Comey -- which, let's remember, have either been described by Trump himself or by anonymous sources in news stories who admit to not being privy to their interactions -- for this kind of frustration with, and re-evaluation of, Comey by Trump?
Look, this alternate explanation could blow up tomorrow -- precisely because we still are, relatively speaking, at the very beginning of this story. We don't know where the story will end up because there are so many facts about it that we don't know . However, look at what we do know, based on what has been said on the record by people who have first-hand knowledge of the investigation -- such as acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who testified last week that there had been no effort to impede the investigation , which he described as having adequate resources (knocking down another anonymously sourced narrative against Trump). Or what has been said by those, like Grassley and Feinstein, who oversee the people carrying out the investigation.
When we look at what we do know, the claims of obstruction of justice don't hold up. Not based on the evidence -- not conjecture, eager interpretations or unsubstantiated claims, but evidence -- currently available.
One last thing (for now). This is not so much a defense of Trump as it is a recognition that, when we are considering something as grave as whether the president has committed an impeachable offense, it is worth making certain there is no other feasible explanation. When the like of Grassley and Feinstein -- and Republicans who have not exactly been sycophants for Trump, such as Sens. Susan Collins and Lindsey Graham -- shoot down the notion the president is quashing an investigation concerning himself, that's worth our attention. When their statements indicate a frustration with the FBI of their own, mirroring the president's frustration, that's worth our attention as well.
In the current environment, though, there seems to be virtually no room for such talk. You're either with Trump or against him, to borrow from one of his predecessors. Some observers have labeled the conservative part of the middle ground between those attitudes as "anti-anti-Trump," and called it irresponsible, but I think that's overly simplistic, too.
It is possible to acknowledge that Trump, for a variety of reasons, challenges our norms and expectations of elected officials for the worse. His lack of preparation for his current office was apparent from the day he launched his campaign, and almost four months into the job he continues to take (at least) two steps back for each step forward. There are real consequences to this. His administration betrays a distinct lack of professionalism and competence , and he bears complete responsibility for that -- not only because he hired them (the "best people," remember?) but because his own lack of knowledge, discipline, self-awareness and humility create most of the problems he and those who work for him find themselves in. Heaven help us when the problems actually start coming from our adversaries.
But it is possible at the same time to acknowledge he's the duly elected president of the United States, and that one's disgust for him (and, let's be honest, potential for political gain) cannot lower the standard for High Crimes and Misdemeanors, nor justify the kind of self-inflicted damage on our democratic institutions Grassley mentioned. It's damn frustrating to watch both currently dominant streams of our political debate -- pro-Trump and anti-Trump -- be, to such a large degree, so thoughtless and hollow.
Rejecting both sides doesn't make me pro-Trump any more than it makes me anti-anti-Trump, or anti-Trump for that matter. I prefer to think of myself as deeply worried for my country, and I don't think I'm alone.