It was political theater of the best kind.
The nature of the events that led ex-FBI Director James Comey to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Thursday are extraordinary. Comey’s testimony of his version of events was even more so.
Starting with Comey’s sudden firing on May 9, events have been unfolding since then, with near-daily scoops about the interactions between Trump and Comey and the campaigns connections to Russia — it has been a wild ride up until this point. Most of what we knew before Thursday has come in bits and pieces. Journalists outside the White House (and the public) have struggled to put together scraps from anonymous sources, often only revealing a little information at a time.
Comey’s prepared testimony, released Wednesday afternoon, gave the public a narrative: that President Donald Trump consistently either failed to understand or intentionally violated the norms of independence that set the FBI out of political reach. Comey’s testimony Thursday presented a reliable narrator for that story. And the dogged questioning from Democrats — and, often, Republicans — made for high drama that drew its power not from partisan confrontation, but from the excitement of finding out the truth.
The political fight over Comey’s firing, and the broader Russia scandal, is ongoing. Here’s who came out of Thursday’s hearing in a stronger position — and who saw themselves undermined.
Winner: James Comey
The clip that sums up Thursday’s hearing isn’t actually from the hearing at all. It’s from the moments before the hearing, as a low-grade hurricane of Senate business swirled around an implacable Comey at its eye.
That image — an unruffled professional, speaking on behalf of no one but himself and prompted by nothing but his own sense of right and wrong — is the one Comey projected throughout the hearing. It was a masterful performance.
Comey presented himself as a career government man who knew enough not to trust a strange new president already surrounded by scandal, but who nonetheless deferred to him, as president, up to the point where doing so would violate the law — and whose primary concern, even then, was to protect the investigation rather than to cause trouble he saw as unnecessary with the president.
In doing so, he made himself extremely hard to impugn. Even his toughest Republican questioners were forced to acknowledge his basic integrity, and take the gravity of his claims at least somewhat seriously. (One of the president’s most vociferous defenders, Sen. John Cornyn, ended up arguing that the president wasn’t guilty of obstructing justice because Comey disobeyed his request to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn.)
He won’t remain above the fray forever. Some of his answers about why he didn’t do more, at the time, to raise alarms about the president’s behavior aren’t likely to satisfy Republicans, and it’s likely they’ll paint him as a disgruntled ex-employee smearing his former boss (or as a “deep-state” mole opposed to Trump from the beginning).
But while his admission that “I could have been stronger” in pushing back against Trump in the moment might be a political liability for him, it rang true. It confirmed, as much as anyone has ever confirmed on the record, something that many people assume is true but few can prove: that this president is fundamentally not normal, that he fundamentally will not play by the rules that protect the integrity of his office and the government.
Faced with such a boss, we all think we’d be the first to blow the whistle. But many of us wouldn’t. Jim Comey simply admitted to it.
Winner: the FBI
Remember in the days before the election, when liberals were all worried that the FBI’s support for Trump had corrupted the agency’s law enforcement capabilities?
The FBI was never the most likely agency for critics of Trump to look to as the “resistance” within the federal government. But the president’s unseemly interest in the Russia investigation appears to have set them on edge — and firing their director only made the problem worse.
Comey made an impassioned case for the independence and professionalism of his former agency before the committee. “There is no one indispensable person,” he said in the hearing’s biggest humblebrag; the work of investigating the Trump campaign will continue.
The idea of the FBI as a bastion of integrity within the federal government isn’t just amusing because of the agency’s history (the shadow of J. Edgar Hoover still looms large, to the point where the founding director was mentioned in passing on Thursday as an example of inappropriate power over a president). It’s fascinating because, as recently as last fall, it really looked like the political persuasion of the agency’s field officers were going to undermine its commitment to investigating wrongdoing.
Instead, though, it appears that many FBI agents who had supported Trump are putting their agency over their party. They may not be as noble as Comey made them look Thursday, but they’re certainly looking better than one might have expected.
Winner: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)
You might be surprised to hear this, but senators like to hear themselves talk. They like to hear themselves talk on television and in the halls of Congress. If the members of the intelligence committee had used the opportunity of a televised committee hearing to grandstand about how terrible Trump was (or how terrible the media was) for seven minutes at a time, barely letting Comey get a word in edgewise, it would have made for deadly viewing.
That wasn’t what happened. Members of both parties managed to restrain themselves from pontificating about what they thought the problem was (with the exception of a little bit of Russia-bashing from ranking member Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA)). And members of both parties, but particularly Democrats, made a point of sticking to questions either that Comey could answer, or that his refusal or inability to discuss would be an answer of a different kind.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is a veteran of this kind of questioning. As one of the Senate’s leading critics of government surveillance, he’s well-trained in the art of asking a witness a question he knows the witness can’t answer publicly, as a way of flagging for the public that there is something of interest being kept from them.
On Thursday, he used those skills to extract one of the few genuinely new pieces of information from the hearing: that Comey had a reason, beyond what’s publicly been reported, to believe that Jeff Sessions would need to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
Wyden wasn’t flashy. He wasn’t outraged. He simply moved the ball forward in the investigation and let Comey be the star of the show. And his colleagues followed suit.
Democrats in Congress have been in a tricky position under Trump — and not just because they’re the minority party. They’re torn between a need to uphold the government (by helping Republicans keep it funded, and adhering to its norms) and a desire to please a base who sees this president as fundamentally illegitimate or downright monstrous.
Thursday’s hearing showed that Democrats don’t need to stamp their feet and gnash their teeth and wear pussy hats on the floor of the Senate to demonstrate effective opposition. They can simply show a commitment to finding the truth, and a confidence that the truth will not — as the truth so far has not — make the Trump administration look very good.
Loser: Donald Trump
Here are things said about the president of the United States by the former FBI director:
- “The nature of the person — I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document.”
- “The administration then chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple.”
- “I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in.”
- “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”
There’s more where this came from. Nothing James Comey said about Donald Trump Thursday inspired any confidence in the leadership of the president.
The only ambiguity, which Republicans are trying to seize on, to questionable benefit, is if the president was actively trying to undermine the rule of law by running the federal government like a family business, or if the man with his finger on the nuclear button is so astoundingly ignorant and badly advised that he just has no idea how anything works and needs remedial lessons — that his own White House hasn’t given him — in things like the fundamental independence of the FBI.
Both of those are terrifying possibilities. Both are bad for democracy and bad for the rule of law.
The best thing you can say about the president, coming out of today’s hearing, is that he didn’t make it worse for himself with aggrieved live-tweeting. But he can’t sustain silence forever — and if everything Trump’s done up to this point is any indication, he’s going to have a tough time sticking to his agenda when there’s an insult out there he wants to rebut.
The question isn’t whether Donald Trump will respond to James Comey in a way that makes Trump look bad. It’s when.
Loser: Jeff Sessions
The most tantalizing hint Comey dropped Thursday wasn’t about Trump. It was about Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Comey said that he expected Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigation even before Sessions officially did so. Under questioning from Wyden, he admitted that he hadn’t just made that assumption based on what was publicly known about the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak meeting, but based on something else he’d known — but he wouldn’t publicly say what that thing was (emphasis added):
Our judgment, as I recall, is that he was very close to and inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons. We also were aware of facts that I can't discuss in an open setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic. So we were convinced — in fact, I think we'd already heard that the career people were recommending that he recuse himself, that he was not going to be in contact with Russia-related matters much longer.
It’s not clear what Comey is referring to. It’s possible that he’s referring to a second meeting between Sessions and Kislyak during the campaign, reported by CNN at the end of May but not yet officially confirmed. (Having two meetings, and failing to admit to either of them during your confirmation, is a bigger sign of deliberate intent to mislead than just leaving one off.) It’s also possible that Sessions had some other contact with Russia that hasn’t yet been reported. Or maybe Comey was referring to something else entirely.
Sessions has been the most unexpected member of the Trump administration to get caught up in the Russia scandal — unlike Trump or many of the president’s other advisers, he’s a career politician. He’s already on the outs with the president for things that aren’t related to Russia (although the president is always on the outs with someone in his White House). But more public scrutiny is probably the last thing he needs, especially regarding the Comey firing saga, which Thursday’s testimony ensures isn’t going away anytime soon.
Loser: the Republican Party
Let’s start with this tweet, sent Wednesday by the official Twitter account of the Republican National Committee after the written copy of Comey’s prepared testimony had been printed online. It is a bad tweet.
Trying to find something of substance in Comey’s opening statement like pic.twitter.com/igLC4JPREg— GOP (@GOP) June 7, 2017
It’s not just a bad tweet because it’s such an unforced error (why did they feel the need to tweet anything at all?), or because the only reason that Comey’s opening statement didn’t feel revelatory is because much of it had been reported previously in scoops that many Republicans had dismissed as “fake news.”
It’s a bad tweet because the combination of the GIF’s Western setting (it’s from the recent remake of The Magnificent Seven) and the text evoke the HBO show Westworld — where robots, programmed to believe they live in the Wild West, respond to any sign of the modern world with a blank stare and a “It doesn’t look like anything to me.”
“It doesn’t look like anything to me” is the GOP’s pre-programmed response to any new sign of wrongdoing by President Trump or his administration. And some of them have been using it so readily for so long that it seems they’ve lost any ability to actually see the information amassed in front of them — much less to draw a line at which, should Trump cross it, they’d be forced to stand up to him.
This is forcing them into uncomfortable positions — Speaker of the House Paul Ryan found himself excusing the president as “new to this” as a way of saying he hadn’t knowingly screwed up, which is just not something you want to say about your commander-in-chief. But it also means that they have blinded themselves with loyalty to a man who isn’t loyal to them.
Donald Trump puts himself before his party. He puts himself before his own administration — he was willing to see “satellites” brought up on charges in the Russia investigation as long as he was publicly known not to have been within its scope. If there is a way that Trump can get out of this by undermining Republicans, he will do it. But now, while they are the ones with the power to undermine him, they won’t.