Ex-FBI Director Comey released a statement ahead of his appearance before Congress, and it has heads spinning. I’ll tell you how things look through what I call the Persuasion Filter.
There are several related stories swirling around the news that involve Russia, Trump, Trump’s campaign staff, and Comey. All together, the stories are beyond the capacity of the human brain to hold the details and keep them from automatically conflating in our minds and becoming more soup than individual ingredients. When you have this level of complexity, humans reflexively default to using bias over reason. Our capacity for reason isn’t up to the job in this case because all the Russia-Comey-Trump stuff has started to run together in our minds. We would happily use our limited powers of reason in this situation if we could, but the complexity of it all makes that a dream beyond our grasp.
Could a trained lawyer sort out this complexity and at least tell you whether or not a law has been broken? Apparently not. Otherwise the lawyers on both sides would agree. They don’t.
So what we are seeing is a super-clean example of what I call two movies on one screen. The anti-Trump media and citizens are peering into the Comey fog and seeing some serious Trump-related wrongdoing that is impeachable at the very least, and treasonous at worst. Meanwhile, Trump supporters are looking at the SAME FACTS and seeing nothing illegal except for some leaking by anti-Trumpers.
Now add to the Comey fog the recent news of how President Trump worded his conversations. The nation will be word-thinking like crazy today, trying to figure out whether “honest” and “hope” mean something. That’s just enough ambiguity to create confirmation bias in literally every observer. (Including me, of course.) We’re all seeing what we want to see at this point.
I’m not a lawyer, and I’m as biased as the rest of you on this topic. But for what it’s worth, I’ll tell you what I’m seeing through my filter.
Comey reports that Trump asked him during a private meeting for “loyalty.” Comey promised “honesty” instead. When Trump pressed the point a second time, Comey said he would give “honest loyalty.” Trump agreed that “honest loyalty” is what he wanted. The way you interpret this conversation depends on whether you think Trump or his associates are guilty of anything. If you think Trump is guilty of a crime, the conversation sounds like a Mafia-style threat. But if you believe Trump and his associates are innocent of any crimes, you probably see honesty and loyalty as the same thing in this situation. Innocent people want law enforcement to be honest. For the FBI to act otherwise would be disloyal to both the Constitution and any citizens involved in the investigation. In the context of an investigation of an innocent citizen, honesty and loyalty from law enforcement are the same thing.
“Hope you can let it go”
Regarding the FBI investigation of Flynn, if you think there was wrongdoing by Flynn, Trump’s expression of hope that the FBI can “let it go” sounds like a gangster sending a threat. But if you believe Flynn was innocent of everything but lying to Pence (for which he was fired) then you see it as entirely reasonable that Flynn’s friend (Trump) would “hope” Comey could “let it go.” The alternative would be hoping that Flynn was harmed for no reason, and the government continued to be distracted over nonsense. Does anyone hope for that outcome?
I won’t defend what President Trump said or did on this issue. Clearly it was problematic because we’re discussing it instead of something more useful. But I don’t see a broken law.
Was President Trump trying to persuade Comey in any of their private conversations? Of course he was. In a political context, all conversations are about persuasion. Comey was trying to persuade Trump that Comey was a competent and capable player with no bias. Trump was expressing his preferences from a power position, which is persuasive by its nature.
Persuasion isn’t inherently good or bad. Persuasion is a tool. It’s goodness or badness depends on the context of its use. If you believe Trump knows he and his associates were innocent of any wrongdoing, and you observe that the investigations are making the government less effective, it feels entirely legitimate for the President to persuade in a direction that is a benefit for all citizens. No one wants to waste time, money, or energy on a useless investigation. But if you think there is some wrongdoing yet uncovered, presidential persuasion would be wildly inappropriate in this case, even if technically legal.
I haven’t seen evidence of any crimes on the Trump side, so my filter sees a president trying to remove some obstacles that are not serving him or the American public. That kind of persuasion doesn’t feel wrong to me.
If new information emerges, I’m happy to update my opinion.
You might enjoy reading my book because I it is chock-full of honest loyalty.
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