James and the giant impeach
Trump may have handed ex-FBI director Comey the 'smoking gun' that could kill his presidency
A smoking gun is extraordinarily rare evidence.
Think about it: The gun has been fired, the smoke is curling from the barrel, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) can see the traces.
But Mr James B. Comey, dismissed as FBI director by US President Donald Trump a month ago, delivered one in his Senate testimony on Thursday.
It may prove injurious - possibly fatal - to the Trump administration.
The famous "smoking gun tape" that doomed former US president Richard M. Nixon was recorded in the Oval Office in June 1972, the week after White House operatives were arrested breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.
Nixon wanted the FBI to halt its Watergate investigation. The Supreme Court ordered Nixon to give up the tape, which provided a clear-cut case of obstruction of justice, and Nixon resigned three days later, in August 1974.
The tape gave the lie to Nixon's famous protestation that "I am not a crook". He was.
Mr Comey's testimony has made it clear that the FBI is on the case again - and that one of the crime scenes is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
One target is Mr Michael T. Flynn, the shortest-serving national security adviser in American history.
It may come to pass that the president himself will fall under investigation for declaring that he fired his former director over the probe into Russia.
If so, Mr Trump handed the smoking gun over to Mr Comey all by himself.
Mr Comey laid down the outlines of a case of obstruction of justice that could be made by Mr Robert Mueller, his predecessor as FBI director and the recently appointed special counsel in the increasingly malignant case of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The facts are straightforward but still shocking.
Mr Mueller and his investigators now have the meticulous memoranda of conversations Mr Comey had with Mr Trump.
Why did the former director feel compelled to make them?
"I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting," Mr Comey said, "and so I thought it really important to document."
We learnt from him that Mr Flynn was under criminal investigation, vulnerable to a charge that he lied to FBI agents who interviewed him about his contacts with Russian officials, well before he was forced to resign on Feb 13.
And that the next evening, face to face, one-on-one in the White House, Mr Trump asked Mr Comey to "let Flynn go" .
"Was Mr Flynn, at that time, in serious legal jeopardy?" asked Senate intelligence committee chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican. "Do you sense that the president was trying to obstruct justice?"
Mr Comey replied: "There was an open FBI criminal investigation of (Flynn's) statements in connection with the Russian contacts and the contacts themselves.
"I don't think it's for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct.
"I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning, but that is a conclusion I'm sure the special counsel will work towards, to try and understand what the intention was there, and whether that is an offence."
That may be count one if any charges emerge from the probe.
This may be count two: "I take the president at his word - that I was fired because of the Russia investigation," Mr Comey said.
"Something about the way I was conducting it, the president felt, created pressure on him that he wanted to relieve."
Firing Mr Comey with the intent of derailing an investigation Mr Trump has constantly called a hoax could also be construed as an obstruction of justice.
"You have the president of the United States asking you to stop an investigation," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. "What was the response of your colleagues?"
Mr Comey said: "I think they were as shocked and troubled by it as I was."
And, perhaps most disturbing of all, Mr Comey said for the first time that Mr Trump's conduct may fall within "the scope" of the FBI's investigation.
That means Mr Mueller and the bureau might be looking at Mr Trump as a potential subject of a criminal case. The law makes it a crime to corruptly obstruct, influence or impede an FBI investigation.
Impeachment looks like a legal proceeding, but it is at root political. An impeachable offence is whatever Congress says it is. But that decision is ultimately in the hands of the American people.
If they think the man in the White House is a crook, they will have to vote to flip the House and the Senate from red to blue in November next year.
If that happens, the first order of business for the new Congress in January 2019 might conceivably be hearings on impeachment.
In the meantime, Mr Mueller will be working on the biggest case in the history of 21st-century America. - REUTERS
The writer is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.