Before President Donald Trump, Senate hearings were usually confined to the dustiest corners of C-SPAN, where only the most dedicated wonks would bother to find them.
But 139 days into one of the most turbulent presidencies in American history, the sight of an aggressively stone-faced man giving testimony at 10 am on a Thursday aired across news channels to millions of viewers and snarky tweets. The days leading up to the hearing were marked by breathless speculation as to who would show up, whether or not the president would join in the live-tweeting, and which moment might be the one to blow everything wide open.
James Comey’s testimony, in other words, became a bonafide cultural event — and at this point, that’s hardly a surprise.
In the reality show that is the Trump administration, Comey's testimony was its reunion special
Trump’s approached his presidency like a producer steering the world’s highest-stakes reality show and that show’s most volatile contestant combined. He teases Cabinet appointments and policy decisions with cliffhanger suspense, as if he’s about to throw to a commercial break. He uses Twitter to connect directly with his audience, promising his fans the unfiltered truth while seething over the supposedly nefarious intentions of his “enemies.” He latches onto catchphrases — “fake news!” — with all the hair-tossing confidence of a Real Housewife trying on a new intro line for size.
Think back, if you can, to the long gone yesteryear of February, when Trump threw a bizarre impromptu press conference. In between berating everyone in the room and trashing any ounce of criticism as unfair — a classic reality-show villain move — Trump acknowledged the incredible, disproportionate amount of coverage he got during the campaign.
“That’s how I won,” Trump said then. “I won with news conferences, and probably speeches.”
In short: Trump knows he won for putting on the most compelling show of any candidate out there — and there’s been no indication he plans to stop now that he’s in office.
So it was only a matter of time before the first season of the Trump presidency got to an event like James Comey’s testimony, which echoed one of reality shows’ most sacred traditions: the reunion special, in which everyone’s words come back to haunt them.
From The Bachelor to Survivor, The Real Housewives to RuPaul’s Drag Race, reality shows love themselves a good (read: messy af) reunion. Hindsight might be 20/20, but for reality shows, revisiting past drama can turn it into an even bigger — and more compelling — catastrophe. These specials give producers and contestants alike room can take a step back, pinpoint the moments when the drama got particularly juicy, and give everyone a chance to respond and/or confront each other — preferably in the splashiest way possible.
In the immortal words of one Ms. Whitney Houston, reunions are for showing “the receipts” — which is exactly what Comey, fresh off getting cut from the regular cast of the Trump administration, came prepared to do today.
Let me just host the freaking reunion show so we can GET ON WITH IT!!! #ComeyHearings— Andy Cohen (@Andy) June 8, 2017
The drama surrounding Comey — from his announcement of an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server a week before the election to getting fired by President Trump — made for a perfect storm of anticipation once he agreed to return to Capitol Hill and testify as a private citizen. What was Comey going to say? Did he have incriminating evidence he couldn’t reveal before? Was Donald Trump going to live-tweet the testimony? What was he going to say?
only in 2017 would one be launching a tour and watching comey testify at the same time— Lorde (@lorde) June 8, 2017
To meet the rising demand, broadcast networks broke from their usual daytime programming, bars opened their doors early, and offices projected the hearing in communal spaces so everyone could watch the latest three-hour(!) episode of The President Trump Show unfold. Twitter sharpened its #ComeyDay knives, unleashing a torrent of live-tweets the likes of which is usually reserved for Game of Thrones finales, Oscar night disasters, or yes, highly anticipated reality show reunion specials.
And once the testimony was underway, some of the curiosity became active hope that the action would get more incendiary, even (or especially) if it took Trump himself interjecting to do it.
So, did Comey’s testimony show us the receipts? As with any good TV show and/or political event: yes and no. He sure came out swinging, but as the questioning dragged on, it became clear that the guy’s still a former FBI agent with a default expression best described as “resting stoic face,” who plays things as close to the chest as possible
Between that, the inevitable tedium of Senate protocol, and the fact that the only Trump who ended up live-tweeting was Donald Junior, some of the viewers who had tuned in to watch Comey spill scalding secrets were more frustrated than captivated. Whatever political gains and/or losses came out of the hearing — and however masterfully Comey played it — the pure entertainment spectacle of it all wasn’t quite as electric as the hype surrounding it.
Comey: I can't discuss that in an open setting.— The Late Show (@colbertlateshow) June 8, 2017
Despite all the buildup and Trump’s joke — or concern, depending on how you look at it — that Comey might be getting “more famous” than him, Comey’s willingness to step into the spotlight didn’t make his testimony the stuff of spellbinding TV. Comey’s not the star of this show; he’s a recurring player, a means to a potentially spectacular end. His testimony, like all good reality series complications, is a narrative spark. Only time will tell if it fizzles out or leads to an explosive finale — but Trump’s cultivated a political atmosphere that guarantees we’ll be glued to the story no matter what.