When he got his chance in Thursday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to question former FBI Director James Comey, Idaho Sen. Jim Risch shifted into trial-attorney mode, parsing the words of a key portion of Comey’s written testimony and peppering him with questions aimed at suggesting the testimony actually absolves President Trump of any potential charge of obstruction of justice.
“I want to drill right down, as my time is limited, to the most recent dustup regarding allegations that the president of the United States obstructed justice,” Risch said. He complimented Comey on his clear, concise, written testimony, including quotations.
“And boy, you nailed this down,” Risch said, “on page 5, paragraph 3, you put this in quotes – words matter, you wrote down the words so we can all have the words in front of us now. There’s 28 words there that are in quotes, and it says, quote, ‘I hope,’ this is the president speaking, ‘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.’ Now those are his exact words, is that correct?”
“Correct,” Comey responded.
“And you wrote them here and you put them in quotes?” Again, Comey responded, “Correct.”
“Thank you for that,” Risch said, adding sharply, “He did not direct you to let it go.” “Not in his words, no,” Comey responded.
“He did not order you to let it go,” Risch said. “Again, those words are not an order,” Comey responded.
“He said I hope,” Risch said. “Now, like me, you probably did hundreds of cases, maybe thousands of cases, charging people with criminal offenses, and of course you acknowledge the thousands of cases out there where people have been charged. Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice, or for that matter any other criminal offense, where they said or thought they hoped for an outcome?”
Comey responded, “I don’t know well enough to answer. And the reason I keep saying his words, is I took it as a direction. This is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying ‘I hope this.’ I took it as this is what he wants me to do. Now I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.”
“You may have taken it as a direction, but that’s not what he said,” Risch said. Comey responded, “Correct, that’s why I,” but Risch interrupted. “He said ‘I hope,’” Risch said.
“Those are exact words, correct,” Comey responded.
“You don’t know of anyone that’s ever been charged for hoping something,” Risch said, “is that a fair statement?”
“I don’t as I sit here,” Comey responded.
Richard Seamon, a professor of law at the University of Idaho – from which Risch earned his law degree – disagreed with Risch’s assessment Thursday. “I think that phrasing it as ‘I hope’ does not categorically bar prosecution,” he said. “A lot depends on the context.”
“Obviously, he’s putting pressure on Comey – the power relationship is such that the expression of hope, both Trump and Comey would understand it was not just a kind of lighthearted wish, but really there was pressure behind it.”
Risch, in interviews Thursday on CNN and Fox News, defended his line of questioning. “Words are important – we go to law school for a lot of years, we study words, we write ’em,” Risch told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. Risch said if Comey thought the president was giving him an inappropriate order or direction, it was “incumbent on him” to object. “He could say, ‘I’m not going to do it.’ He could say, ‘I quit.’ ”
Risch, 74, is an attorney who started his career as an Ada County prosecutor, a position to which he was twice elected in the 1970s, but spent most of his career as a highly successful trial attorney. Though he was unenthusiastic about Trump during the election campaign, he has stepped forward as one of the president’s most vocal defenders in the Senate in recent weeks.
“Hearing from former Director Comey is an important part of the investigations being conducted by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and also by special counsel Mueller,” said Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, in a statement. “Idahoans should feel confident that as a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, Senator Risch is representing their concerns as these investigations continue.”
Seamon said Risch clearly was staking out a position. “Certainly he’s coming through here as a very staunch defender of what the president did,” he said. However, he said, the matter may turn less on legal details and more on politics, as a sitting president can’t be indicted before first being impeached by Congress. “Really where this issue is going to be tried is in the court of politics,” Seamon said.
Sen. Maria Cantwell said she was in a hearing on the president’s energy proposals and didn’t have time to watch the entire testimony, but what she saw gave her the impression that Comey is credible and that Trump crossed the line.
“You don’t ask the FBI director to pledge loyalty,” the Washington Democrat said. “You certainly don’t ask him to ‘move on’ on something.”
She’s waiting for an update from colleagues on the Intelligence Committee on the closed-door session with Comey, and is concerned about the role Attorney General Jeff Sessions played in any decisions about the investigation.
“We thought he had taken himself out of the equation,” she said.
Cantwell was also critical of administration officials who appeared before the committee Wednesday and refused to answer questions about their conversations with the president about the investigation, but could not give a legal reason for that refusal.
Sen. Patty Murray, the state’s senior Democrat, called Comey’s testimony an important moment for the country in its search for truth. It also made “crystal clear” the importance of a special prosecutor and that members of Congress must follow the facts wherever they lead.
“I was glad to see Mr. Comey speak honestly and openly about his actions with President Trump, despite the president’s efforts to contradict and disparage him,” Murray said.
Staff writer Jim Camden contributed to this report.