The Totally Conclusive Meaning of 28 Vague Words

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

–President Donald J. Trump to F.B.I. Director James Comey

So that settles that, right? In a pop-up symposium at Politico, fourteen lawyers and academics gave their views, ranging from Larry Tribe’s view that it conclusively proves guilt to Eugene Kontorovich’s view that it conclusively proves innocence.

Nobody suggested that Trump’s words were appropriate, which House Speaker Paul Ryan explains away as just his lack of knowledge of governance and protocol. Hey, the guy doesn’t know anything about how government works, about what a president is allowed to say to an F.B.I. director, so he stupidly crossed some lines. He’s a dope, but not a criminal.

The neo-SJW late of SDNY, Preet Bharara, calls that “silly,” because he wants to be relevant.

Silly. DJT knew protocol well enough to attack, rally after campaign rally, the breach of “protocol” in Clinton’s tarmac meeting with Lynch.

Of course, somebody could have just told that to Trump. For his part, Comey heard the words and felt them to be a “direction.”

Sen. James Risch: Words matter. You wrote down the words so we can all have the words in front of us now. There’s 28 words now in quotes. It says, quote, I hope — this is the president speaking — “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Now, those are his exact words, is that correct?

James Comey: Correct.

Sen. James Risch: You wrote them here and put them in quotes.

James Comey: Correct.

Sen. James Risch: Thank you for that. He did not direct you to let it go?

James Comey:Not in his words, no.

Sen. James Risch: He did not order you to let it go?

James Comey: Again, those words are not an order.

Sen. James Risch: He said, I hope. Now, like me, you probably did hundreds of cases, maybe thousands of cases, charging people with criminal offenses and, of course, you have knowledge of the thousands of cases out there where people have been charged. Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where they said or thought they hoped for an outcome?

James Comey: I don’t know well enough to answer. The reason I keep saying his words is I took it as a direction.

Sen. James Risch: Right.

James Comey: I mean, this is a president of the United States with me alone saying I hope this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.

The surrounding circumstances, Trump telling Comey’s superior, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and first son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to leave the room so that the 28 words could be spoken in private, also matter. They matter a lot, as it suggests Trump wanted no witnesses to these words.*

Then again, Trump has never been known to use subtlety or nuance as a weapon in his arsenal of persuasion. If this was the case, then why use the word “hope” rather than, in private, come out and tell Comey, “do it or you’re out of here.”

Risch’s cross of Comey was well done, but didn’t get a concession from the witness. Comey stuck to his interpretation of the president’s words. One doesn’t need to use a hammer to make the point that you are the nail, even if Trump, on his best day, seems incapable of using any tool other than a big, stupid, brutish hammer.

So what does this mean?

Comey never said the interaction amounted to obstruction of justice. However, he clearly felt something inappropriate was happening — that the president of the United States tried to stop an open investigation into one of the former members of his inner circle.

Comey testified as a fact witness, not as an expert or juror. Not only does this suggest his modesty, which adds to the appearance of credibility as a witness, but it wasn’t his place to draw ultimate conclusions. Just the facts, Jim. By saying he felt it was a “direction,” he was providing the foundation for an obstruction conclusion as best he could.

“Yes. It kind of rings in my ears as, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?'” Comey said.

“I was just going to quote that,” King responded.

It’s a line that Henry II, the king of England, has been quoted historically as uttering in 1170 during a years-long feud with Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket.

Those words, some historical accounts suggest, were interpreted by Henry’s men as him wishing for Becket to be killed.

The 28 words certainly have the same feeling as the Henry II quote, which, as Kontorovich points out, was nothing more than Comey’s feelings.

In his written statement, he says he felt “compelled” to take notes, and had a “feeling” that Trump wanted to “create some sort of patronage relationship” but provides no hard evidence for that. Similarly, the testimony Thursday was about Comey’s feelings.

To inadvertently nail this down, out came the survivors of sexual harassment to empathize with Comey’s predicament, which they saw as an analogy of their own.

Victims of sexual harassment often face skepticism, doubts and accusations when they tell their story. That’s part of the predator’s power. But I’m here to tell James Comey, and all the women and men who have suffered at the hands of predators, I believe you.

So what do these 28 words prove? Anything you want them to. There’s an expert, a scholar, a public official, a survivor, who will back you up, no matter which way you come out. And whichever way you come out, you will be absolutely, completely, totally, conclusively right, because that’s what you see in Trump’s words.

While this question of obstruction of justice will never go before a petit jury, it may well go before the Senate on Articles of Impeachment. The 28 words will then mean whatever they say they mean, regardless of what anyone else says. That’s the American way.

*As some, such as Dersh, have argued, there was no need for subterfuge as the president, as chief executive, has the authority to call off an investigation at will, thus making obstruction a legal impossibility. While there is chatter of the mission and goal of “independence” of the F.B.I., there is no law precluding the president from ordering Comey to do as he says. It’s just an arm of the Department of Justice, which is just another federal department like any other. Norms are fine, but they aren’t law.

20 thoughts on “The Totally Conclusive Meaning of 28 Vague Words

  1. Ken Mackenzie

    Is the legal analysis the President’s biggest problem? As a juror I’d say the evidence does not convict him of obstruction. As a voter (if I was one) I’d be convinced the President tried to kill the investigations into General Flynn and Russian influence. Politically,that should be terminal. In a Westminster system the Prime Minister goes when he or she loses the confidence of Parliament. No Prime Minister would survive in office after Mr Comey’s evidence. It’s a weakness of the US system that only criminality, incapacity or death can remove an incompetent President.

    1. SHG Post author

      Impeachment isn’t a legal process, but a political one. That said, would anybody want to invite Jeremy Corbyn to dinner?

    2. Charles

      “It’s a weakness of the US system that only criminality, incapacity or death can remove an incompetent President.”

      And elections.

      P.S. It is humorous that Preet is so intent on attacking Trump that he unequivocally accuses Clinton of a breach of protocol.

      1. SHG Post author

        I have no particular beef with Preet (or Sally Yates, for that matter). He was standard issue, if a show pony (which is also standard issue in SDNY). What I find unfathomable is how they’re reinventing themselves as social justice icons, and how the blithering idiots believe it because they were fired by Trump. As if that cleanses them of their taint.

      2. Ken Mackenzie

        Fixed terms protect a President who goes rogue from any consequence for up to 4 years. At least some State Governors can be recalled by voters.

          1. Ken Mackenzie

            Interfering with FBI investigations was not one of Mr Trump’s campaign promises. That it was foreseeable does not mean it was foreseen.

            1. SHG Post author

              His campaign promises? His supporters elected the man, not the promises. This was always the man.

            2. Ken Mackenzie

              That’s Mencken’s theory of democracy in action – “the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

              Yet President Trump was elected to be mean to Mexicans, not to Sheriffs; to represent the interests of American businesses, not Russian plutocrats. His attempts to stop the FBI looking into the Russian connections are a betrayal of the trust and confidence the voters, however foolishly, placed in him.

            3. SHG Post author

              He was elected to not be “one of them” in the swamp as well. And the one promise he’s kept in spades is to not be like anyone who knows law, Constitution or governance. They elected a non-politician, a businessman, the basic billionaire “regular guy.” They got him, good and hard.

  2. maz

    A while back, idly paging through the San Francisco Chronicle, I suddenly found myself slamming to a halt after reading this description in an article about a recent series of robberies near Fisherman’s Wharf: “The suspect is described as a black man in his mid-30s, approximately 6’0″, 250 pounds, wearing a dark jacket and a beanie.”

    ‘How much trouble could it be to find him?’ I wondered — during the few seconds it took to remember that what I would call a stocking cap, my SoCal inlaws dubbed a ‘beanie.’ Through no fault of the author, the frangible nature of language had given rise to a wildly inaccurate mental image that nonetheless proved hard to shake. For days, I kept imagining myself being menaced by a large, angry man with a propeller on his head.

    Why do I mention this, now? Because I think I just experienced something similar, thanks to “As if that cleanses them of their taint.”

    1. SHG Post author

      I have a beanie with a propeller around here somewhere. I’m going out to Fisherman’s Wharf on a sourdough robbery spree. They’ll never get me.

  3. Allen

    I doubt they could even get Articles of Impeachment out of committee in the House on this. It makes for some grand theater and raucous internet food fights though. Is there a distinct word for the mass murder of words that will be committed over this? If it gets to that point will Roberts try to top Rhenquist? I think he should go with stars and moons and such on his robe. Maybe a wand in hand. That way we could have all three branches in the big top at one time.

    I’m wondering if people realize, he’s an ass, is an impeachable and convictable offense if the House and Senate decides it is. Of course selling that to the voters come their turn in the barrel might be a different matter.

  4. Sam Spade

    If Trump wanted to order Come to stop and had ordered people out of the room so there would be witnesses, why would he need to be subtle about it? Especially when he is supposedly the least subtle president in history? If he wanted to make a clear order, he could have done so. He had already gone on record saying that he hoped the political assassination of Flynn would stop. Saying something to Comey in private that differed little from what he had already said publicly is hardly shocking.
    All this handwringing is bullshit and you know it.

    1. Patrick Maupin

      Any government employee paying attention to Trump’s constant tweets wouldn’t have time to do its job. Of course, some Republicans have made it clear that one goal is to paralyze the government (except, of course, the military), via starve-the-beast or other means, so maybe that’s part of the strategy.

      In that light, your comment makes perfect sense. A man who has the fortitude to ignore constant political tweets and keep working, who keeps working even when he is told personally that the goal is paralysis: that man needs firing.

  5. Pingback: Obstruction of Justice and Presidential Power – Derek L. Ramsey

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