WASHINGTON — Ten days ago, Donald Trump’s rocky presidency was in relatively calm waters. He’d helped push a health-care bill through the House and was spending the weekend at his Trump-brand property in Bedminster, N.J. After that, the deluge: Sally Yates’s testimony on Capitol Hill, the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, the private meeting with Russia’s foreign minister, the revelation that the Comey firing was spurred at least partly by the Russia investigation, the threat to release tapes of his conversation with Comey and, on Monday, The Washington Post’s revelation that Trump had shared classified information with the Russians.
Tuesday had its own surprise: A report from the New York Times about a conversation between Comey and the president in which Trump asked him to end the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. According to the Times, Comey detailed the Feb. 14 conversation with Trump in a memo that he shared with other senior FBI officials at the time — but didn’t reveal it publicly because he didn’t want to influence the investigation.
The White House denied it in a statement. It reads, in part: “The President has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn. The President has the utmost respect for our law enforcement agencies, and all investigations. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the President and Mr. Comey.”
According to Comey’s purported memo, read to Times reporters by an associate, Trump said in their conversation, “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.”
It seems as though the flood of information over the past 10 days has been pushing us to a point that we haven’t yet reached, forcing an explicit choice between the word of the White House and the word of an outside party. The Post’s story about the revelation of classified information came close, but the carefully worded administration responses released Monday didn’t constitute a robust denial of our story. In this case, the denial of the Times report is explicit. Trump’s White House says the report about the Comey memo is not “truthful or accurate.”
Forcing the American public to decide: Whom do you believe, Trump or Comey? Or, in a layer of abstraction that will continue to complicate things, the White House or the reporting of the Times (and others, including The Post)?
There is a surfeit of circumstantial evidence that bolsters the idea that Trump pressured Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn.
• After Yates’s testimony eight days ago, White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked why Trump kept defending Flynn, despite his having been asked to resign for apparently lying to the vice president. Spicer insisted that the president didn’t want to “smear” Flynn, who is a “good man.” (In Comey’s memo, he’s a “good guy.”)
• Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that he was thinking of the Russia investigation when he decided to fire Comey, contrary to what his staff had been insisting.
• His dinner with Comey, in which he admits to asking the FBI director whether he himself was under investigation, came the day after Yates informed the White House that Flynn’s actions conflicted with what Vice President Pence had said publicly — a conversation that revealed that the FBI was investigating Flynn.
Overlay that with Trump’s repeated insistence that any investigations into Russia were suspect, and it certainly seems believable that he might have tried to twist Comey’s arm on the investigation into Flynn.
Polls show Republicans are more likely to trust Trump than the press.
But we’ve seen repeatedly that in a believability contest between Trump and A Number of Other People, Trump often, somehow, emerges the victor. At least with the core base of support he has enjoyed over the course of his brief time in politics — a base of support that constitutes a big chunk of the Republican electorate and, therefore, has seemingly frozen significant robust Republican criticism of Trump.
In this case, Americans will be asked to choose between the White House and the media, a choice that, particularly for many Republicans, will be an easy one. Lots of polling shows that Republicans are more likely to trust Trump than the press.
It’s not clear whether Trump’s obvious recent contradictions have eroded Republican confidence in his word vs. the media’s, but there’s little evidence to suggest that it has.
Those contradictions remind us of another layer of complexity. They often come at the expense of his staff, who were aligned to offer one story until Trump, in an interview or a tweet, casually tosses a grenade into their fortress. It happened with the Comey firing; it happened to a lesser extent with the Russia story this week. It’s very possible that this conflict will be defused in the morning, when Trump simply cops to the conversation with Comey. It’s impossible to know; even Trump admitted on Twitter this week that his representatives are imperfect conveyors of his truths.
As it stands, there’s enough to the Times report to give Trump defenders wiggle room. But, again, the path of the past 10 days has been toward less and less wiggle room and a more and more direct contrast between Trump and some other trustworthy outside individual. That’s the moment of tension that has been building since Trump announced his candidacy, always pitting him against imperfect foils like Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton or the mainstream media. Eventually — seemingly inevitably — that wave will crash into a wall.