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Did James Comey's Testimony Exonerate Or Damage President Trump?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump is in a meeting with several people, including FBI Director James Comey. He asks everybody else to leave, even the attorney general, even his adviser Jared Kushner. And when they're alone, he says to Comey, I hope you can see your way to letting this go, to letting Flynn go, a reference to Comey's probe of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. After Comey testified about this yesterday, a CNN headline read, "Comey: I Took Trump's Request About Flynn As A Directive." A Fox News headline - "Comey: President Did Not Order Me To Let Flynn Probe Go."

Jonah Goldberg joins us to make sense of this. He's with National Review, a regular guest on this program. Hi, Jonah.

JONAH GOLDBERG: Morning, Steve. Great to be here.

INSKEEP: I'm going to give you a chance to be a headline writer. What's your headline of this same exchange?

GOLDBERG: Oh, golly - "Comey Poisons Trump; Trump Declares Victory."

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: That makes no sense, Jonah.

GOLDBERG: (Laughter) Well - all right, so here it is. If you paid attention, Comey was basically laying down the predicates, basically handing a narrative to the special counsel Robert Mueller, who he knows very well, for obstruction of justice.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

GOLDBERG: Now, Mueller may or may not pick up that ball. That remains to be seen. But he gave - but Comey gave what was, to his mind, all of the elements for that investigation. So I think the big takeaway from yesterday was the Russia collusion story, the big conspiracy theory scandal - that took a major hit. The obstruction of justice story got a major boost.

INSKEEP: Meaning that Comey did not give a lot of new evidence or any new evidence that Trump's campaign colluded with Russia in some way.

GOLDBERG: Right. And he...

INSKEEP: They still may probe elsewhere.

GOLDBERG: But he also actually undermined that story when he said that The New York Times, which was the original blockbuster about the Trump campaign colluding with Russian officials...

INSKEEP: Got the story wrong.

GOLDBERG: He said that story was wrong, and that's a big deal.

INSKEEP: He hasn't said exactly how it's wrong, but there it is. And then the obstruction of justice - and this is reminding me, actually, of Watergate, where Richard Nixon could have argued that the original crimes of Watergate were not such a big deal. Somebody called it a third-rate burglary.

GOLDBERG: Right.

INSKEEP: But the obstruction of justice just got bigger and bigger and bigger.

GOLDBERG: Right. And so I thought one of the most interesting things about yesterday actually wasn't in the Comey testimony but was in Donald Trump's lawyer's response to it because they want to have it two ways. They want to say on the one hand, Comey's testimony completely vindicates the president of the United States and on the other hand, James Comey is a complete and total liar.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Makes perfect sense.

GOLDBERG: And it seems to me that if Comey is lying about the inconvenient bits in his testimony, the bits that lay down the predicate for this obstruction of justice charge, well, he could have made much bigger lies. I mean, he could have said that he and Donald Trump sat around the Oval Office watching Carrot Top...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

GOLDBERG: ...Or something. I mean, he could have really come up with some nasty stuff, and he didn't. And you can't take the bits that help you - that exonerate you from one charge and then say he's lying about the other one.

INSKEEP: OK. So the lawyers will deal with the legalities on this, maybe a grand jury sometime. Who knows? Let's just talk about the politics. Is this defensible when we have the president saying, I hope you can let this investigation go? That's maybe a general statement. But it's surrounded by all these other things - asking everybody else to leave the room, Comey didn't do what he was asked, and he was fired. Is that actually a survivable charge against the president?

GOLDBERG: I think that all entirely depends on how many Democrats are in the House of Representatives and the Senate (laughter) going forward.

INSKEEP: It's a political question.

GOLDBERG: It's political question. It's not a legal question. The president is not going to be impeached over legal niceties. It is going to be about some larger political question.

INSKEEP: Jonah, thanks very much as always. Glad you came by.

GOLDBERG: Great to be here. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at The National Review, also a columnist for the LA Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.