The effort to discredit James Comey’s recent testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee isn’t new. With notable exceptions, the Republicans have made it their dangerous business to devalue truth itself – and it continues.
Comey, the former FBI director, has again involved himself, as he did in the 2016 presidential election, in a headline story. Then, it was his misplaced scrupulousness about a pledge he had made to a congressional committee. It backfired and may well have helped sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Now, with the same solicitude for his own reputation, he has made headline news of a self-directed memorandum in which he sought to preserve a contemporaneous record of a conversation with President Donald Trump.
The story goes this way: The president fired Comey because, Comey assumed, Trump was trying to suppress evidence of Russian meddling. A key player was Trump’s sometime national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Trump solicited Comey to let up on Flynn – at least that was the way Comey heard the presidential words. Comey found this troubling and promptly wrote a memo to have a reliable record. Then Trump tweeted that Comey had better hope that there was no tape recording of their conversations.
According to his testimony Thursday, Comey suddenly woke up in the dead of night, hoping that such a tape exists (it almost certainly is a Trump fiction, since his private lawyer would not otherwise have dared accuse Comey of perjury) and fearing that, if such a tape turns up his recollections could be characterized as a derivative from it. So he phoned a friend, a Columbia law professor, and asked him to pass along news of the memo to the press. A story based on it appeared in The New York Times.
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I wish Comey didn’t tend to involve his personal vanity in official matters. But I think I recognize truth-telling when I hear it, and I heard it from Comey. Trump, by contrast, notoriously occupies a fantasy-land of his own imagining, whose highlights include a false claim to have written his ghosted book, “The Art of the Deal,” and his claims that Barack Obama was an unconstitutional president and a tapper of Trump’s telephone lines. Trump’s mendacious assault on a presidential predecessor is unprecedented, and another indicator of Trump’s indifference to custom and comity.
The “media” misleadingly characterized Comey’s self-protective act as a “leak,” a derogatory term implying that it is an unauthorized release of classified documents. But it was neither official nor secret. It was the record of a personal recollection, and Comey had every right to do with it as he wished. Comey is a private citizen today and is free to exercise a citizen’s rights. The effect and intention, legally speaking, were unquestionably proper.
Comey’s day before the Senate committee reminded me of a bygone performance half a century ago by President Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, John Dean. Dean, up to that point, had been managing the Watergate cover-up but legal sleuths were on his trail and he decided that the hour for confession had come.
Dean’s lawyerly memory was as tenacious as Comey’s and his testimony before the Senate select committee equally compelling. It easily survived the effort of Nixon stooges to discredit it. Truth-telling ultimately defeats lying efforts to defeat it. The thing about lies, official or unofficial, is that most of them have a short shelf life. As the poet Coventry Patmore put it, “The truth is great, and will prevail.” That is Comey’s bet.
But the Republicans are betting against it. Robin Hayes, the North Carolina Republican chairman, described Comey’s testimony and “leak” as “a matter of national security” and “classified information.” Hayes is betting that the public has become so partisan, and so indifferent to truth, that this misleading description of what Comey said (under oath) will win the day.
At the very least this is mortally dangerous business in a political system based on government by consent and consent, in turn, on truth and accuracy. But the Republicans, with the help of shoddy electronic and digital “news,” are well on their way to making “fake news” triumphant. The stakes could hardly be higher. If they succeed it will be our ruin.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.