Andrew Ricci, Vice President, LEVICK
Well, as professionals across Washington and the country started to finish out the work week and prepared for the weekend, the James Comey saga that continues to plague the White House continued to get more interesting. Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway, appearing on ABC’s Good Morning America, refused to rule out the possibility of President Donald Trump invoking Presidential privilege to block recently-ousted FBI director James Comey from testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Let’s make no mistake here: this situation is yet another lose-lose for the Trump Administration, and it’s not solely because Mr. Comey could have an axe or two to grind over the circumstances of his sudden firing and the derogatory comments that the President subsequently made about his character. Allowing Mr. Comey to testify causes the story about his campaign’s alleged connections to – and possible coordination with – Russia to continue rapidly deepening. Blocking Mr. Comey from testifying leads the occasional whispers about formal obstruction of justice to become ever louder and spoken by ever more credible voices. And if this happens, talk of impeachment moves from the shadows into more prominent venues.
Every elected official is in a constant state of reassessing a delicate political calculus that will guide and impact their next electoral contest. This story is rapidly forging into the territory where that calculus reaches a tipping point and members must make a decision about whether the risks of being seen as part of the obstruction outweigh the benefit of sticking with their party’s leader. The best embodiment of this, perhaps, was the trip on August 7, 1974 in which U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), U.S. House Minority Leader John Rhodes (R-Ariz.), and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R-Pa.) traveled to the White House to inform then-President Richard Nixon that his impeachment, conviction, and removal from office was all but guaranteed. The jig was up, and Nixon announced his resignation the next day.
Up until that point, Nixon had dug in his heels and fought, much like President Trump is today. While there have certainly been many damning pieces of evidence as the layers of this onion are peeled back, the perception of outright obstruction will be hard for leaders in Congress – who have, for the most part, kept their options open but stuck with the President – to deny.
Making matters more difficult, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which has taken the reins of this investigation, has been the rare body acting in a truly bipartisan fashion in today’s deeply-divided Washington. It is hard to see Republican committee Chairman Richard Burr reacting favorably to White House intervention, and I can only imagine that Democratic ranking member Mark Warner would be nothing short of apoplectic at efforts to stymie the investigation that has thus far been carried out responsibly and thoroughly.
If President Trump invokes executive privilege, it will almost certainly be seen as an admission from the White House that the Trump Administration has something to hide that it is deeply fearful will be brought to light. This charge has been levied repeatedly at the Administration based on President Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns.
There is a big difference, however. There is no requirement beyond tradition and custom for a President or a candidate to release their tax information. America’s democracy and democratic systems, though, are the bedrock of our nation, and they are something that Democrats and Republicans alike deeply cherish and revere. Nobody on Capitol Hill wants history to reflect on them as the person who chose party over country, and therein lies the rub.
While we’ve learned much about this story over the past several months, we are likely just at the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Trump thrives on creating chaos around him, and as a result his administration has thus far been completely unable to get its story straight. He undermines his communications professionals and they undermine each other. Mass confusion persists. This is not how a strategic response, with an eye toward long-term management and recovery, is done.
Mr. Trump has a big decision to make in the coming days. Whatever he decides, he would be wise to think through, fully, where he will go with it next.