Part 4—Kristof bungles a fact: Let's be fair! When a person's sobriquet includes the glorious term "the God," this sort of thing can happen.
We refer to Nicholas Kristof's remark about James B. Comey—"Comey the God"—in this morning's column.
The column poses the glorious Comey in contradistinction to the absurdly perfidious Donald J. Trump, who's described as "our own tin-pot despot."
Granted, Trump is the craziest, least reliable figure in our political history. But when writers fashion a simplified novel like that, this sort of misstatement, like Mary's lamb, is almost sure to follow:
KRISTOF (6/8/17): [L]et’s not get mired in legal technicalities. Whether or not it was illegal for Trump to urge Comey to back off his investigation into Russia ties to Mike Flynn, who was fired as national security adviser, it was utterly inappropriate. What comes through is a persistent effort by Trump to interfere with the legal system. There’s a consistent pattern: Trump’s contempt for the system of laws that, incredibly, he now presides over.Glorious Comey! Who else could have such an "open mind?" Who else but this exalted figure would realize that the focus of an investigation can actually change over time?
All this is of course tied to Russia and its equally extraordinary attack on the American political system last year. The latest revelation is that Russian military intelligence executed a cyberattack on at least one supplier of American voting software and tried to compromise the computers of more than 100 local voting officials.
Comey specifies in his testimony, to be presented Thursday, that he told Trump that there was no personal investigation of him, but that this might change. Comey seems to have an open mind—a good lesson for all of us.
Kristof is fawning to Comey there, composing a systemwide novel. He's also making a factual error, or so it seems, unless there's something we've missed.
We'd read the god's full written testimony just before reading that column. For that reason, we were puzzled:
Was Kristof's statement accurate? Did Comey forthrightly tell Donald J. Trump "that there was no personal investigation of him, but that this might change?"
We thought we'd read something different. And sure enough, unless we're missing something. As Comey describes a March 30 phone call with Donald J. Trump, the relevant text says this:
COMEY THE GOD: Then the President asked why there had been a congressional hearing about Russia the previous week—at which I had, as the Department of Justice directed, confirmed the investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. I explained the demands from the leadership of both parties in Congress for more information, and that Senator Grassley had even held up the confirmation of the Deputy Attorney General until we briefed him in detail on the investigation. I explained that we had briefed the leadership of Congress on exactly which individuals we were investigating and that we had told those Congressional leaders that we were not personally investigating President Trump. I reminded him I had previously told him that. He repeatedly told me, “We need to get that fact out.” (I did not tell the President that the FBI and the Department of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because it would create a duty to correct, should that change.)To peruse Comey's full written testimony, you can just click here.
Unless we're missing something, that's the only passage in Comey's published remarks which speaks to his amazing realization—his realization that the focus of an investigation can actually change over time.
Everyone knows that the focus of a probe can change over time! But uh-oh! In that passage, Kristof seems to say that he didn't make this statement to Donald J. Trump. Stunned by Comey's moral greatness, Kristof seems to say the opposite—that Comey boldly told Trump that the situation could change.
In the vast sweep of this fandango, this would rate as a relatively minor misstatement. But in this misstatement, Kristof is painting Comey in the requisite manner, as a figure of vast forthrightness.
Despite this mandated novelization, it seems to us that Comey actually comes across quite differently in his published remarks. For the sake of convenience, consider the passage we've already posted.
Comey is describing a March 30 phone call with Trump. Somewhat weirdly, he describes the exchange reposted below, apparently about a very public March 21 congressional hearing:
COMEY THE FORTHRIGHT: Then the President asked why there had been a congressional hearing about Russia the previous week—at which I had, as the Department of Justice directed, confirmed the investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. I explained the demands from the leadership of both parties in Congress for more information, and that Senator Grassley had even held up the confirmation of the Deputy Attorney General until we briefed him in detail on the investigation. I explained that we had briefed the leadership of Congress on exactly which individuals we were investigating and that we had told those Congressional leaders that we were not personally investigating President Trump.Say what? Nine days later, why would Comey have "explained" these extremely well-known facts to Trump? Indeed, why would Trump have asked Comey to tell him "why there had been a congressional hearing about Russia the previous week?"
Trump already knew what Comey had said at this high-profile public hearing. The very next morning, on March 22, the New York Times had said this atop its front page:
"The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, took the extraordinary step on Monday of announcing that the agency is investigating whether members of President Trump's campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election. Mr. Comey's testimony before the House Intelligence Committee created a treacherous political moment for Mr. Trump..."
This was a very high-profile event. Does anyone think that Donald J. Trump didn't know what Comey had said?
We have no doubt that Donald J. Trump had many questions about that hearing. That said, does Comey's account of that phone call actually seem to make sense?
Does it sound like a forthright account? We're forced to admit that it sounds a bit phony to us.
Endlessly, the mainstream press corps has novelized Comey, down through the years, as The World's Most Forthright Human. He has shared this novelized status with other exalted figures, most of them Republicans, even including the endlessly dissembling Paul Ryan.
Comey isn't the world least forthright person, but he plainly isn't the godlike figure whose status is currently being reestablished by the mainstream press. Again and again, his prepared remarks seem striking to us for the lack of forthrightness they seem to display, though we'll wait until tomorrow to offer examples.
That said, Kristof was novelizing Comey today. Producing dramatic counterpoint, he acted like it takes a god to understand that an investigation's focus can change.
Everyone over age 6 knows that! Kristof was being swept away in that silly passage.
That said, our press corps loves novels. They especially like simple-minded novels, in which a highly demonized figure is said to confront a great god.
(Deeply destructive past example: World's biggest liar Gore versus sanctified straight-shooter Bradley. Everyone typed that tale!)
This novelization was underway this past Monday night on The One True Channel. A reliable liberal voice spoke to a reliably liberal host. Here's the remarkable formulation their tribal congress supplied:
REID (6/5/17): Let's talk about Jim Comey and what—what do you expect to hear from him? Is it—do you think that there will be anything new that comes out of his testimony?"Stay with us" could be the key words! Also, "it means he lied."
MILLER: You know, I think—well, obviously, he's going to come in, we suspect, and talk about his conversations with the president. And there are—several of those conversations we know about already. But it's been reported that he kept memos about other conversations that we don't know the details of yet.
And I suspect, we won't know, of course, until Thursday, but I suspect that Jim Comey, who—whatever you think about him, he certainly has shown a propensity to love the spotlight in the past, I suspect he might be saving his biggest revelation for this hearing. And we may see some new bombs, even worse than the ones we've already seen. And even if not, just adding more details, something we saw in the Sally Yates hearing. We knew a lot of what she planned to say, but when she actually came in and fleshed out the details, you know, kind of put, told exactly the things she had warned the White House about, if we see Jim Comey come and add some more details about his conversations with the president, really, it could be explosive.
And, by the way, remember that the president said point-blank that he did not pressure Comey to fire Mike Flynn. If James Comey comes in, raises his hand in the air, swears under oath and says on the record, under oath, that that's not true, that's a difficult position for the president obviously because it means he lied to the American people.
REID: Yes, might be a good time to buy stock in popcorn companies because people are going to stock a lot of it for Thursday.
Matthew Miller, former chief spokesperson for the Justice Department, thank you very much. Really appreciate your time.
MILLER: Thank you.
REID: Thank you.
And coming up, did the administration's case for the Trump travel ban just get a lot more difficult for them to argue within the last hour? Stay with us.
Matt Miller, a reliable liberal, described high drama ahead. Yay yay yay yay yay! He suspected that Comey the God "might be saving his biggest revelation for this hearing."
We might "see some new bombs, even worse than the ones we've already seen." If Comey "adds some new details," Miller said, "really, it could be explosive."
With this high drama drawing near, Reid pictured all the lonely people preparing their barrels of popcorn. Almost surely, ratings would go through the roof!
The pair of pundits were setting the stage for the high drama ahead. But look again at what Miller said about great Comey's great power:
"Remember that the president said point-blank that he did not pressure Comey to fire Mike Flynn. If James Comey comes in, raises his hand in the air, swears under oath and says on the record, under oath, that that's not true, that's a difficult position for the president obviously because it means he lied to the American people." (Our emphasis)
If Comey says it, that means it's true! That is what we liberals were told as we added bags of popcorn to our shopping lists.
For some reason, we've been thinking today of sacred Homer's closing line in The Iliad:
"Such was their burial of Hector, breaker of horses."
So too here, we think.
If Comey says it, that means Trump lied? Everyone has been pushing that framework! Such is corporate cable's burial of our already modest intelligence.
This afternoon: The greatest moral drama of all time