Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Here’s my plan, if it works for everyone: The overarching question will be “Is James Comey’s book/publicity tour helping or hurting the case against President Trump?”
You can interpret “the case” however you want, but I mostly mean it politically.
To give the convo some structure, we’ll go through the six claims Comey makes that are highlighted in this BBC article and say whether each helps or hurts.
perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Sure.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Let’s go!
clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Ready.
micah: Also, FiveThirtyEight Features Editor Chad Matlin is obsessed with the Comey story, so he’s lurking in this chat and is going to chime in occasionally.
chad: Point of order: I am obsessed with Comey as essentially a character out of a literary political thriller. He’s flawed in all sorts of ways that make him extremely compelling and unable to be plopped into a villain or hero bucket. He essentially admits that he has an ego and a devotion to integrity, which makes it very fascinating to try to tease out where one starts and the other stops.
I agree, Chad.
He is a character who has tangled thoughts on his own actions.
micah: No. 1:
“When asked if he considered Mr Trump fit to lead, the former FBI director said he did not believe claims about Mr Trump’s mental health, but did see him as ‘morally unfit’ to be president.”
Help or hurt?
clare.malone: I’m less concerned with whether Comey thinks Trump should be in office: We care more about Comey’s observations of his interactions with Trump — whether or not he thinks the president obstructed justice, etc. At least, I think we should care more about those.
micah: The media doesn’t seem to care more about that, Clare.
clare.malone: Well, like Comey, I am a morally superior force in the world, Micah.
I am SANCTIMONY embodied!
natesilver: Yeah, I don’t really give a fig about Comey’s view on Trump’s character, except to the extent it reflects proprietary knowledge that Comey has based on working with him. Instead, the assessments Comey makes about Trump in the ABC News interview seem very arm’s-length — as though he’s a political pundit.
perry: Helps. I think someone of Comey’s stature saying that the president is “morally unfit” is important. He is kind of echoing the Never Trump/John McCain/Jeff Flake view, which is not a hugely influential one, but it does have some influence, so it’s part of why Trump is fairly unpopular.
Clare and Nate, why do you think Comey-as-pundit hurts the case against Trump?
clare.malone: Because it distracts from the narrative that actually matters: Comey’s word against Trump’s on a number of occasions where it is a he said/he said.
I don’t think Comey needs to bolster his argument by being bombastic about Trump being unfit.
natesilver: Yeah, it lowers his stature. Comey’s authority comes from having had a seat at the table and having seen Trump up close and personal — not from having particularly good judgment, since there are all sorts of questions about his judgment.
clare.malone: He already has a good reputation as a man-of-the-law, truth-teller type.
natesilver: Right — I think a Chief Justice John Roberts “My job is to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat” demeanor would serve him better.
micah: I mean, let’s say Comey has the influence Perry mentions with ~3 percent of Americans — that’s something.
I just don’t know if there are really any neutral observers anymore.
OK, No. 2:
“Another portion of the interview handled the sacking of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in February 2017 for lying about contacts with the Russian ambassador in Washington. The former FBI head said Mr Trump had tried to pressure him into dropping any investigation into Mr Flynn. ‘I took it as a direction,’ he told Mr Stephanopoulos. ‘He’s — his words were, though, “I hope you can let it go”.’”
clare.malone: I think help. He’s being honest about the words, but also his interpretation of them — which presumably includes the way the president said it, the tone, emphasis, body language.
natesilver: Help, I guess … but wasn’t that news already public like six months ago?
clare.malone: It’s Comey being transparent about the interaction.
perry: I don’t know if this one matters as much, because this is basically what Comey said last year during the Senate hearing, as Nate said. He put the legal term “obstruction of justice” in there, but this is the core of what he told the Senate back last year.
natesilver: Yeah, I’m gonna say neutral because there’s no news there.
clare.malone: Repetition of relevant facts matters.
So, it doesn’t hurt.
natesilver: I’m a Bayesian, Clare, and it didn’t cause me to update my priors. 🚬
clare.malone: I don’t even want to dignify that one. Next!
micah: No. 3:
“I think impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook.”
So Comey is anti-impeachment.
clare.malone: I don’t actually know how I feel on this one. Sticking by my original logic of “No one should really care about Comey’s feelings about things outside what happened between him and the president,” I would have to say this hurts, since it’s a distraction from the main message.
On the other hand, I guess if he’s trying to look more even-handed and less “Never Trump,” then this is perhaps helpful?
For the sake of consistency, though, I’ll go with “hurt.”
natesilver: I don’t really think it helps or hurts the case against Trump per se.
micah: Let’s get a dose of Chad here.
chad: It hurts, since Comey’s dismissal is what the left uses as proof that there was obstruction of justice. So if the guy who got fired says his firing isn’t enough, then that perhaps has some weight. Since obstruction is fuzzier than Democrats would like.
natesilver: But I sorta agree with Comey that elections are an underrated remedy as compared with impeachment.
clare.malone: Nate, you have to pick one or the other! Help or hurt!?!?
Isn’t that how this game, goes!?
clare.malone: I love that song.
chad: Nate, please don’t make me reveal your karaoke song.
perry: Hurt. I thought Comey’s anti-impeachment stance was interesting. The legal case against Trump (obstruction of justice, etc.) and impeachment are not exactly the same thing. There is a broad coalition of anti-Trump people, from Never Trump Republicans to the Democrats who are already in favor of impeachment. If Democrats win the House, you’ll see the divide between the pro- and anti-impeachment forces. And I think Comey’s view here is important. He is a sharp Trump critic, but he’s warning against impeachment. We’ll likely see some Democrats outside of the party’s most liberal wing echo what he is saying: Let’s beat Trump in the election, not try to impeach him.
micah: So, I’ve largely resisted all the Comey character analysis and ranting about how he affected the election, but I have to say: I found the fact that Comey — the person who arguably threw the election to Trump — used the phrase “let the American people off the hook” pretty galling.
clare.malone: Why, Micah?
micah: Because he sends this letter days before the election that has a meaningful effect, and then sorta chastises the American people to basically “clean up their own mess” — at least, that’s how I heard/read it.
clare.malone: He’s right in some sense, that, say, Republicans nominated Trump.
perry: I think that was his goofy way of saying that the best way to get rid of an unfit president is through the electoral process. I don’t think he was really attacking the voters.
clare.malone: (I knew I was going to get the letter argument, but I do think that we should also remember Comey is probably a pretty disillusioned REPUBLICAN.)
micah: OK, yeah, I agree with him on the merits — elections > impeachment — but he’s not in the best position to tell voters what they should or shouldn’t do during an election.
“In the TV interview, Mr Comey said his belief that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential elections was a factor in how he handled the investigation into the Democrat candidate’s use of classified emails on a private server while she was the secretary of state. ‘I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump,’ Mr Comey said.”
clare.malone: Yeah, that’s a hurt.
That just makes his reasoning for his public statements look … sloppy. Because his whole thing has been, “I was acting by the letter of the law,” but obviously the heightened atmosphere of fall 2016 played a part in his ultimate decision.
natesilver: Throughout the ABC interview, Comey seems extremely preoccupied with appearances — both how he’ll be perceived and how the FBI will be perceived.
Yet he sorta concedes that what he’s doing is against Justice Department protocol.
natesilver: And paints himself as being in a no-win position.
But one nice thing about having protocol and rules and regulations is that they give you a good default answer in no-win situations.
micah: If I could give one piece of advice to the political left, it would be: Accuse everyone of bias against you. That strategy, which a portion of conservatives have used for decades, seems to have all kinds of political benefits.
clare.malone: I mean, the Bernie Sanders people got that memo.
(Not to dredge up old fights …)
(But bring ’em on, I guess.)
perry: This posture in the interview about the Clinton investigation helps the case against Trump in that it weakens the “investigate the investigation” crowd on the GOP side, who say the real crime was Clinton’s behavior, not Trump’s. I thought, with what Comey said about Clinton and former CIA Director David Petraeus, who resigned after a scandal in which he mishandled classified information, Comey exonerated Clinton a bit more publicly than he has before. He all but said, “I have seen real email/documents abuse, and Hillary Clinton didn’t do it, but Petraeus did.”
micah: A lot of this seems to come down to credibility to overcome partisanship. Perry, it seems like you think Comey has at least a dollop of that power?
natesilver: There are a lot of parallels between how Comey saw the various scandals and how the press covered them, including wanting to appear tough on Clinton so as to seem nonpartisan.
perry: I’m not sure if Comey or anyone can overcome partisanship. But I think the media is playing a huge role in the Russia investigation process and struggling with questions of telling this story in both an accurate way but also not being perceived as biased against Republicans and Trump. So an independent authority like Comey saying that Trump’s behavior was more questionable than Clinton’s could affect media coverage, if not the public at large.
clare.malone: Is Comey independent, though?
micah: I’m sorta moving in Perry’s direction a bit — if you follow the news super closely, I think Comey at this point reads as fully immersed in the political/partisan fight; he’s “anti-Trump.” But maybe if you’re only paying attention peripherally, “former FBI director” is what really comes through.
Like, resume-wise, Comey is as independent as they come, Clare.
clare.malone: But right now, in our present reality, is he independent?
micah: He’s just not keeping up appearances.
natesilver: In the interview, he comes across as part of #TheResistance.
chad: That says more about #TheResistance than Comey to me.
natesilver: Ehh … it’s not that interviewer George Stephanopoulos grudgingly coaxes answers out of him. Comey seems pretty eager to volunteer his opinions on Trump.
chad: Is Comey playing too much on Trump’s turf, given the personal observations and attacks? Does that weaken his argument? Or strengthen it because those comments are more likely to provoke Trump?
perry: I don’t know that him talking about Trump’s hand size was useful. Or his face color or height. That part of it was problematic.
natesilver: The answer to Chad’s question is:
He’s definitely playing on Trump’s turf by making it personal.
clare.malone: Yeah, it’s not a good look.
chad: Before Trump was elected, Omarosa said all would have to bow down to Trump:
While that was overstated, I do think that there’s a kind of Trump vortex in which people feel they need to fight him on personal terms because his way of argument is so personal and ad hominem. Sen. Marco Rubio had this problem in the primaries, when he tried to fight Trump on Trump’s terms and lost.
natesilver: And Trump doesn’t hugely mind picking a fight with Comey if they both get muddied up.
clare.malone: Comey’s whole thing should be “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion,” and he’s not making himself above reproach.
perry: Here’s that Comey quote from the book:
“His face appeared slightly orange, with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles, and impressively coifed, bright blond hair, which upon close inspection looked to be all his. …
“As he extended his hand, I made a mental note to check its size. It was smaller than mine, but did not seem unusually so.”
In the interview, Comey said: “His tie was too long, as it always is … he looked slightly orange up close.”
This all is kind of petty to me.
It’s like how I imagine Russell Westbrook talks about Kevin Durant in private.
clare.malone: Yeah, his editor did him a disservice there. Either in making him put that in or not taking it out.
chad: My thought: Trump is protected politically because of the base, so his detractors have to resort to attacking him personally. But personal attacks are priced in at this point — the people who want Trump out (whether by impeachment or voting) need to start chipping away politically to gain any traction, in my opinion.
“The former FBI boss writes that on at least four occasions Mr Trump raised the matter of unverified claims that he watched prostitutes urinate in a hotel suite during a 2013 Moscow trip.”
Or maybe that statement alone doesn’t hurt … but Comey seems quite interested in gossip about the pee tape, without really providing much substantive insight into it.
He seems too eager to speculate based on incomplete facts.
clare.malone: I honestly don’t know what to think about this one.
Because Comey offers us no further evidence that he knows whether or not this is likely. He just points out that the president was fixated on it.
But like … if someone told me Russians had Kompromat on me, I’d be fixated too!
perry: I’m confused by this one. I think this is the most outlandish detail of all of the Trump scandals. I have tended not to believe it. I’m not sure Comey should have discussed it unless he had real proof. But Jonathan Chait wrote an interesting column recently on why we should consider if the “pee tape” accusation is true. And Comey’s account makes me believe it more, if only because people don’t deny very outlandish things on four separate occasions.
natesilver: But shouldn’t Comey have more insight about this than Jonathan Chait? That’s not meant as an insult to Chait, it’s just that you’d think you’d have a lot more info as head of the FBI.
clare.malone: I mean, maybe some of the stuff he can’t share publicly?
I don’t know.
I think the Steele dossier stuff is a bit distracting, I agree with all of you.
natesilver: Maybe, but Comey can be a very precise communicator when he wants to be, such as in testimony before Congress — he knows how to hint when he has more information than he can reveal publicly.
In the pee-tape stuff, he sounds like a political pundit speculating and gossiping instead, based on having no particular inside info.
micah: I wonder how knowing much what Comey knows and can’t say would affect how we’re reading all this.
perry: I actually think one thing that helps the investigation is what he did know: Comey goes into some detail in the ABC News interview to both 1. say the Russia investigation started with campaign advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, not the dossier and 2. that he considered Steele reliable based on previous work he had done.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein/FBI Director Christopher Wray/the DOJ/the FBI have hinted at this, but can’t say it as explicitly because they are in office now and it would piss off Trump and some of the Republicans in Congress.
natesilver: I guess I just think that Comey doesn’t stick to a just-the-facts posture and that undermines his position.
natesilver: I found Comey’s Congressional testimony very compelling, by contrast, precisely because he avoided speculation.
micah: OK, so we already covered No. 6 (Comey’s comments about Trump’s hair and hands), so let’s end this with … AGGREGATE HELP/HURT.
Overall, is he helping or hurting the case against Trump?
clare.malone: Hurting his case, overall.
chad: Nate, I’m curious: I know that not sticking to a just-the-facts stance undermines his argument for you as a data-/evidence-based journalist. Do you think it does the same for the public at large?
clare.malone: It makes him into a more entrenched partisan figure I think, Chad.
micah: But, to Chad’s point, couldn’t we just as convincingly argue that Comey’s flare for trolling and the lurid detail he uses helps his case by getting it more attention?
natesilver: It’s hard to know for sure, but I think the stuff about being influenced by the polls is pretty damaging, as are the personal comments he makes about Trump’s appearance.
micah: Hmmmm … I’m starting to wonder whether we’re all being a bit too highfalutin. Donald Trump won the White House, after all.
perry: Nate made the right point: Comey’s testimony on the Hill. His Hill testimony was powerful, detailed, precise and impersonal. The book/interview stuff I have seen (I haven’t read the book) has not had that same discipline. Comey has the right to write a book that maybe is more interesting, and maybe “interesting” for him or his editor means going beyond what he said on Capitol Hill.
But some of the details are not enhancing his reputation for seriousness
natesilver: “Discipline” is a great word here. If nothing else, Comey had a reputation for being a disciplined guy. But he doesn’t come across as disciplined in this PR tour. Nor does his thinking around key decisions in 2016 seem to reflect especially disciplined thinking.
perry: Part of the issue is that Comey last year basically cast the president as a bully trying to obstruct justice in his notes that got published in The New York Times, and he got a special counsel appointed and then bashed Trump on the Hill in a heavily watched hearing.
He has already helped the anti-Trump case a great deal. Beyond having tapes of Trump saying the things that Comey purports he said, I would have a hard time thinking of how Comey could be a bigger part of the case against Trump.
He may have set a standard that is hard to top.
micah: Well, he could have tried to maintain his reputation for discipline and soberness.
Anyway … that’s a WRAP!!! Last bite goes to Chad!
micah: Take the last piece of pizza, Chad.
chad: Really excited for Rosenstein’s book.