The new normal of Washington is abnormal.
At daybreak Wednesday, as drama built about the Senate testimony Thursday of the FBI director fired by President Donald Trump, word came from the tweeter-in-chief that he had selected a new head of the bureau. Even White House senior staff members were surprised by the nomination of Chris Wray, a former Justice Department official in the administration of George W. Bush.
However, news of Trump’s pick was swamped by the growing turmoil of the Russia investigation, a storm Wray must navigate should he be confirmed. Trump’s apparent efforts to stop the counterintelligence probe of whether the Russians might have interfered with the 2016 election began even before he swore the oath of office.
Did Trump ask Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to dissuade former FBI Director James Comey from continuing to probe former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, as several published reports contend? Other accounts say Trump asked National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers to deny that Trump’s associates had colluded with Russian officials.
But Wednesday, Coats and Rogers refused to answer questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee about conversations with Trump and whether he had asked either to intervene in the Russia probe. Neither man invoked executive privilege, instead saying it would be inappropriate to discuss their conversations. Coats said he “never felt pressure” to intervene. Rogers said he was “never directed” to intervene, but both refused to answer whether Trump asked them to intervene.
Troubling pattern of pressure
It’s troubling that when asked about the legal basis for his refusal to answer, Coats said, “I’m not sure I have a legal basis.” There is none. Are they afraid of being fired like Comey? They must return and publicly answer those questions under oath.
After the hearing, the committee posted the written statement Comey plans to deliver Thursday, perhaps to allow the White House to prepare for what surely will be his devastating testimony. The statement generally supports Trump’s comments that Comey told him on separate occasions he was not under investigation. Nor does Comey allege that Trump told him to end the Russian probe entirely. But all of these discussions depict a troubling pattern of pressure from Trump, leaving the impression that Comey’s job security depended on the FBI backing off its investigation of Flynn. Clearly, Trump does not understand the critical need for the FBI and Justice Department to be independent. It’s reflected in reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions offered to resign because of Trump’s lingering anger that Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. And it permeates Trump’s interactions with Comey.
Take the surprise dinner invitation from the president that Comey interpreted as an effort to create a patronage relationship: “A few moments later, the President said, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.’ I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.” After another inappropriate conversation in the Oval Office, Comey asked Sessions to shield the FBI from any pressure from the president and said he didn’t want to be alone with Trump again.
The emerging picture of Trump trying to stop the Russian probe and interfering with the FBI is deeply unsettling. And there’s nothing normal about that.