Comey Adds Fuel to Obstruction-of-Justice Concerns

President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Marc Kasowitz speaks to members of the media at the National Press Club in Washington Thursday about the testimony of former FBI Director James Comey. (PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AP)

(CN) – President Donald Trump’s personal attorney went on the offensive Thursday afternoon, attacking several points former FBI director James Comey made in two hours of testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The problem is, in the process, he may have compounded Comey’s claims of being defamed by the administration and left the question of the president’s possibly obstructing justice unresolved.

In a written statement read to reporters gathered at the National Press Club, Marc Kasowitz said President Trump “never told Mr. Comey, ‘I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.'”

That denial essentially accuses Comey of lying under other about what transpired at a January dinner at the White House.

Kasowitz, who was hired to serve as Trump’s outside counsel in late May also denied that Trump asked Comey to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn during a conversation in the Oval Office in February.

“Mr. Comey’s testimony also makes clear that the president never sought to impede the investigation into attempted Russian interference in the 2016 election, and in fact, according to Mr. Comey, the president told Mr. Comey ‘it would be good to find out’ in that investigation if there was ‘some’ ‘satellite’ associates of his who did something wrong,'” Kasowitz said. “And he – President Trump – did not exclude anyone from that statement.

“Consistent with that statement, the president never, in form or substance, directed or suggested that Mr. Comey stop investigating anyone, including – the president never suggested that Mr. Comey ‘let Flynn go,'” Kasowitz said.

Kasowitz then went on to accuse Comey of “unilaterally and surreptitiously” leaking the content of memos he kept of his conversations with Trump, and said “appropriate authorities” could determine whether his actions should be investigated.

Comey testified on Thursday that he had asked a friend to share the content of a memo with a reporter following his ouster, in an effort to spur the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel who would take charge of the Russia probe.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller to that position last month.

Kasowitz said there continues “to be those in government who are actively attempting to undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications.”

He says, “Comey has now admitted that he is one of the leakers.”

But Mark Zaid, a prominent national security attorney in Washington, said some gray area remains about whether Comey had leaked a memo, more than one memo or just the contents of one or more memos to a friend who then gave them to The New York Times.

According to Zaid’s interpretation, Comey had told his friend to leak the contents of what was contained in a single memo.

Regardless of whether one or more memos were involved, Zaid said Kasowtiz may have defamed Comey in a statement he made about that leak after the testimony.

He said he found Kasowitz’s assertion the former FBI director “admitted that he leaked to friends his purported memos of these privileged conversations, one of which he testified was classified” particularly noteworthy.

Zaid had a very different reading of Comey’s comments.

“He most certainly did not say that he had leaked class information at all — in any way, shape or form,” Zaid said in a phone interview.

“Kasowitz just said he committed a crime, which is per se defamation,” Zaid added.

In his statement, Kasowitz also suggested that Comey had violated executive privilege by revealing the content of conversations he had with the President to the press.

However, the White House declined to invoke that privilege, at least with respect to the hearing, Zaid said.

The privilege only works, he added, when you’re an active government employee and the executive branch wants to prevent testimony from coming out.

“There is no mechanism that the U.S. government can stop any former government official from disclosing information unless it’s classified,” Zaid said.

Wendy Weiser, director of the New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, believes Comey’s testimony gave rise to more questions than it may have answered.

“[Obstruction] is a critically important issue to focus on, but we can’t lose sight of the big underlying investigation that gave rise to all of this: whether or not the president colluded with a hostile foreign power which then interfered with U.S. presidential elections. That is really explosive,” Weiser said.

And regardless of whether there was collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign, Weiser said the “tenacity and effectiveness” of Comey’s testimony should raise grave concerns about the future of democracy.

“An important takeaway for future democracy? Even without the rule of law or without collusion, we need to safeguard our election infrastructure. We can’t go into another election with these vulnerabilities. Congress is starting to step up and I don’t know if this is a turning point, but I certainly hope so,” she said. “This what our system relies on: checks and balances.”

Additionally, Wesier said, the jarring details about the administration’s violation of protocol in such a blatant way, revealed just how much the current investigations are needed.

“It’s an incredible spectacle, what happened today. It’s a remarkable moment in U.S. history when here you have the [former] director of the FBI literally telling Congress that a sitting president lied and then, a president that says back, the director of the FBI lied. This is a really a dramatic and troubling set of events and we’re at a precarious moment of how we respect the rule of law and how we proceed from here,” she said.

Although Trump and his surrogates are trying to drive home the point that Comey’s written testimony shows the president did not obstruct justice, Zaid said that question remains unanswered after Comey’s testimony.

“That’s not how it operates,” he said, adding that obstruction doesn’t happen in a vacuum — context and other factors need to be considered, including Trump’s firing of Comey.

According to Comey’s telling, the purpose of Trump’s conversation with him on Feb. 14 – the day after he fired his national security adviser Michael Flynn – seemed to imply that President Trump wanted the FBI investigation of Flynn to go away.

Zaid said we still need more information to determine if a quid pro quo existed, but that it’s too early to discount obstruction.

“I don’t think obstruction is off the table in the slightest, Zaid said. “It’s not like a Jenga game where you just take one piece out and the whole puzzle collapses. That could happen at some point, but we’re not there yet.”

Brandi Buchman contributed to this report.

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