Interpreting the Meaning of “Hope” at the Comey Hearing—Harris has her Say

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

A crucial question unresolved in yesterday’s dramatic testimony by former FBI Director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee is this: Did President Trump direct Comey to drop the investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn when he told Comey he hoped Comey could let the investigation go? California’s junior senator Kamala Harris clearly had her own interpretation of what “hope,” meant.

According to written testimony submitted by Comey, in a February 14 Oval Office meeting Trump said to the then FBI director: “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.”

Does this statement rise to the level of obstruction of justice?

Comey didn’t say it did or it didn’t. He said he was uncomfortable with the question and noted that Trump excused others in the room before making his point to Comey, an action Comey interpreted as the president putting pressure on him.

However, if it was a directive the president apparently did not follow up. Comey said in subsequent meetings and phone calls with the president, Trump never again brought up the matter. Trump even encouraged Comey later to discover the truth about dealings with Russia by anyone around him—his satellites, Trump called them.

If Trump were firm on Comey dropping the investigation, some have argued, he would have followed up on the request.

But then he fired Comey and the obstruction of justice debate gained life.

How close does “hoping” for an action bring the president across an impermissible line? Senators at the hearing parried on the word’s power.

Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) asked Comey if anyone was charged with obstruction of justice for hoping for a certain outcome. Comey was not aware of anyone.

Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma suggested hoping that Comey would end the investigation was a “light touch” and therefore not a demand.

California’s Democratic Senator Kamala Harris looked at it differently. “In my experience of prosecuting cases, when a robber held a gun to somebody’s head and said ‘I hope you will give me your wallet,’ the word hope is not the most operative word at that moment,” Harris said.

Few believe a robber would use such language, but the point is that there is a clear perception divide on what the president meant. Like most things in Washington the divide comes down to politics.

I watched Comey’s testimony as a commentator on KABC Radio in Los Angeles on the McIntrye in the Morning Show. I had the opportunity to ask another guest, The Atlantic’s political news/associate editor Russell Berman, about the different approaches of Lankford and Harris. Berman said the Lankford-Harris difference reflects the partisanship that shapes the opinions on Comey’s testimony.

In other words, as with many issues on the political landscape, your position on “hope” as a directive likely will depend on your partisan persuasion.

More dramatically, the word “hope” carried a different meaning for Senator Angus King of Maine and for Comey himself. Each referred to a famous quote from Henry II about Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

Becket ended up dead. The fates of Trump, Comey and Flynn are yet to be told.

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