If former FBI Director James Comey is good at anything, it's his knack for making public figures look very, very bad... without actually implicating them in a real crime.
He did just that not once, but twice to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign. And based on his just-released prepared testimony before Thursday's Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey is going to do the same thing to President Donald Trump.
Here are the three most damaging quotes from that testimony that effectively smear the president but don't provide the ammunition Democrats would need to impeach or even further wound him politically:
A few moments later, the President said, 'I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.' I didn't move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.
This quote comes from Comey's description of a one-on-one dinner he had with President Trump at the White House on January 27th. It sure sounds bad, but Comey effectively says that's where the explicit comments from the president ended.
Democrats on the Senate Committee will likely press Comey to go much further and describe that "loyalty" comment from President Trump as a clear threat and specific warning not to investigate him or others. But based on the rest of Comey's comments on that dinner, they're not going to get that kind of result.
This is the first of a few examples that prove just how difficult a juggling act Comey has to perform in this matter. If he tells a clear narrative that includes the commission of a real crime by the president or anyone else, Comey himself becomes complicit for not reporting it or at least resigning in public protest. His very actions of continuing to go about his job as FBI Director until President Trump fired him speak louder than even these very embarrassing words.
The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, 'He is a good guy and has been through a lot.' He repeated that Flynn hadn't done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, '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.' I replied only that 'he is a good guy.' (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would 'let this go.'
In many ways, this quote is the heart of the matter entirely. Comey describes President Trump expressing a wish that makes him look bad, but isn't a specific order. And then Comey does Trump an actual favor by adding that he didn't take it as such an order and wouldn't let the Flynn investigation "go." It's an ugly and bizarre exchange for sure, but Comey didn't let anything come of it.
On the morning of March 30, the President called me at the FBI. He described the Russia investigation as 'a cloud' that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to 'lift the cloud.'
There's a real double-whammy in this quote because Comey not only describes President Trump making another inappropriate-sounding request, but it also resurrects memories of that salacious report of Mr. Trump consorting with prostitutes in Moscow several years ago. The mere mention of the word "hookers" in a Congressional hearing can't be just laughed off and it certainly hits hard.
But again, Trump is not ordering Comey to do anything here and is making a request instead. And the best part of this quote for the Trump cause is that it couches the president's concerns in the context of his wanting to do something good for the country. For those hoping to take the White House down with Comey as the weapon, this is another case of "close, but no cigar."
Plus, there is nothing here to help the Democrats' key contention that then-candidate Trump indeed did collude with the Russians to tamper with the election. We still have no evidence of that anywhere.
And there's one other thing to consider and remember: If this were any other new president, with the typical first-year approval ratings in the 60 percent and higher range, Comey's testimony would be a huge and stunning blow. But President Trump has already been battling low approval ratings for more than a year and much of Comey's testimony has already been leaked and done its damage.
Thursday will bring more damage to the Trump White House, but it won't be a mortal wound. This is what many expected before this testimony was released, and now we have that confirmation. It doesn't mean the actual hearing will be any less interesting, but it does mean that the most sensational aspects of the Democrats' narrative are about to die in blaze of embarrassing glory.
Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.
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