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Witcover: His presidency in disarray, Trump lashes out at Comey

President Trump told James Comey he would not have hired Russian prostitutes to pee on each other because he's a "germaphobe," according to a tell-all book by the axed FBI director.

In the fight between former FBI Director James Comey, who has written a newly published memoir, and President Trump, who has been responding to Mr. Comey's book with increasingly vituperative tweets, readers should remember that it's Mr. Trump who is facing possible obstruction of justice charges, not Mr. Comey.

But Mr. Comey's decision to come out with a tell-all account of his conversations with Mr. Trump over the fate of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has shaped the discussion in competitive and combative terms. It has enabled the president to engage in the brawl almost on equal terms, when it is his conduct that triggered the argument from the start.

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Mr. Trump set the stage for the battle in his first meeting with Mr. Comey, by bringing up the charge against Mr. Flynn of lying in the Robert Mueller investigation. According to Mr. Comey, Mr. Trump asked him to let Mr. Flynn off the hook, and did so only after asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to leave the room, with no witness present to hear the illegal pitch.

"The president just kicked out the attorney general to ask me to drop a criminal investigation," Mr. Comey told ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos, who asked if he thought Mr. Trump had obstructed justice. "Wow, the world continues to go crazy."

The result has been the question of who's telling the truth. Mr. Comey says the president asked for his "loyalty," and Mr. Comey responded that he would give him his "honest loyalty" only. The exchange has deteriorated since then into insult swapping, pitting the serial counterpuncher Mr. Trump against the self-righteous professional lawman Mr. Comey.

In a sense, Mr. Comey's timing in the release of his book, "A Higher Loyalty," may be unfortunate for his case. In making his charge against Mr. Trump he has allowed himself, perhaps frustrated by Mr. Trump's serial lies and attacks, to voice irrelevant digs at the president — about his hair, height and hand size — and pronounce him to be "morally unfit" to be in the Oval Office.

Mr. Comey, reflecting on his earlier experience as a federal prosecutor in New York against mobsters, has associated Mr. Trump and his family with the tradition of loyalty at all costs glamorized in the movies. "It's all about how do you serve the boss, what's in the boss' interests," Mr. Comey said of Mr. Trump in the ABC News interview. "It's the family, the family, the family, the family."

As for Mr. Trump, not surprisingly he has brushed aside the allegations against him to go on the attack in personal terms. "I never asked Mr. Comey for Personal Loyalty," he tweeted. "I hardly even knew this guy. Just another of his many lies. His 'memos' " — written shortly after the meeting — "are self-serving and FAKE!"

Soon after that, Mr. Trump continued: "Slippery James Comey, a man who always ends up badly and out of whack (he is not smart!), will go down as the WORST FBI Director in history, by far!" It was more of the so-called straight talk that has so enthralled and dazzled the faithful up to now, on which he relies to get him through his current challenges.

But more threatening to Mr. Trump now than his defense of Mr. Flynn in the Russian meddling inquiry may be the new investigation into his personal and business affairs. The raid by federal prosecutors in New York against his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, clearly has shaken Mr. Trump.

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At stake here may be not just his presidency but his personal world as well: the high-level real-estate and business deals involving almost his entire family.

Mr. Trump's business model of personal deals of questionable legality and financial corner-cutting, and his domination of all in his grasp, have not seemed to be very effective to date in the unfamiliar realm of politics and governance. As these two investigations appear to be closing in on him, Mr. Trump increasingly resorts to hitting back, now taking on the law-enforcement apparatus — the Justice Department, the FBI, even the courts. This time, he may well be overmatched, as long as the basic concept that no man is above the law remains a cherished American belief.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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