James Comey Testifies

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Former FBI director James Comey is sworn in before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 8, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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FBI Director James Comey’s Senate testimony Thursday certainly lived up to the hype.   The ousted FBI Director flatly accused President Donald Trump of firing him after he refused to drop an investigation that put too much pressure on the White House, and then lying about it and defaming the FBI. But did Trump’s actions break the law?

“I don’t know. That’s Bob Mueller’s job to sort that out,” Comey told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, referring to the special counsel recently appointed to look into Russia’s meddling in last year’s election.

Legal experts are divided. While many agree that Comey’s testimony suggests Trump acted inappropriately, they point out it would be much harder to prove he acted illegally since obstruction of justice requires proving Trump’s intent — never an easy task. And since presidents are charged not in a court of law, but in Congress through the impeachment process, the question may be as much a political one as a legal one.

The stakes are enormous since, as the old Washington adage goes “it’s not the crime but the cover-up” that tends to ensnare politicians. Richard Nixon resigned after the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment for obstruction of justice. And Bill Clinton was successfully impeached for obstruction (along with a second count for perjury), even though an independent criminal investigation later declined to bring any charges against him for the underlying scandals around Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky.

Comey, who knows Mueller well and earlier sought his approval on what he could say publicly during Thursday’s congressional hearing, suggested his fellow former FBI director is already investigating whether Trump obstructed justice.

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