Watching former FBI Director James Comey testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee struck a nerve many of us did not quite expect: This thing was going down like a sexual harassment case.
The parallels between Mr. Comey’s experiences with President Trump and the facts of a sexual harassment case — I am not the only one to notice them — should perhaps not be that surprising. Sexual harassment is a workplace issue, one in which a supervisor abuses structural power over a subordinate. Americans tuned in, at least in part, to see if Comey would level allegations of improper use of power by his boss, so there was a sense in which the hearings were already set to cover ground familiar to many of us.
But what was more striking was that the hearing itself hit squarely almost all the familiar tropes of how those who allege sexual harassment are treated. Some women watching it unfold on live TV had an unpleasant sense of déjà vu. And if you were a man watching, and thought Comey was treated with undue skepticism, remember that feeling the next time you hear a woman explain how she reacted to a power-abusing superior.
Comey’s opening statement did what any claimant of abuse would do. He attempted to make the power issue central to his testimony: He argued that his superior, the president, had abused the authority of his office, taking advantage of his role atop the bureaucracy. Comey said that while he knew he could be fired by any president, the 10-year term of his appointment implied it shouldn’t happen for political reasons. And yet, his dismissal seemed to have happened for the worst sort of political reason: for failing to do his boss an unsavory favor.
This workplace claim of abuse of power lies at the heart of the issue, and it is central to many sexual harassment cases. But once the questioning got underway, the parallels became even more inescapable.
Trump cleared the room of everyone except him and Comey, then expressed his “hope” the investigation would end
The first two rounds of questioning were actually quite encouraging for Comey — if you view him as a “claimant.” Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) moved quickly through many facts surrounding all the issues that might be relevant — the Russian interference claims, the investigation of Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, the Clinton email investigation. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) kept the focus on President Trump’s behavior: What did the president say, and what was it about the circumstances of the conversations that made Comey uncomfortable? Comey had the opportunity to explain that the situation was sufficiently unsettling that he made sure to document his conversations with Trump, though he never felt the need to do so with Presidents Bush or Obama.
Once Sen. Jim Risch’s (R-ID) time began, however, the hearing took a fateful turn toward victim-blaming. First, he asked Comey to reiterate that Trump wasn’t under FBI investigation — which, while true, was irrelevant to the question of whether Trump was interfering with the FBI’s work.
More importantly, Risch focused on the language that Comey said Trump used when allegedly asking him to drop the investigation into Flynn in a way that ignored the context of an extreme imbalance of power. Risch focused on the fact that Trump had expressed the “hope” that Comey would drop the Flynn investigation. “Words matter,” Risch said. He suggested that “I hope” could not possibly imply pressure.
But nobody who has sat in a chair across from a boss, alone in a room, and heard him say he “hopes” you do something — “I hope you don’t report me to the human resources department,” perhaps — would find that argument persuasive.
Why didn’t Comey push back more forcefully against the president?
One of the odder themes of the questioning — familiar to those who study sexual harassment cases — involved whether Comey should have reacted more strongly to Trump’s allegedly inappropriate requests. If Comey didn’t react with indignation and anger, how bad could the conduct have been?
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), oddly enough, was the one to begin this line of questioning. Although the Democratic senator gave Comey the opportunity to discuss the president’s suspicious decision to clear the Oval Office before raising the Flynn matter, she also challenged him: “Here's the question: You're big. You’re strong … why didn’t you stop and say, ‘Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you’?”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) picked right up on this theme: “Did you say something to the president about, ‘That is not an appropriate request,’ or did you tell the White House counsel?”
Confusion over how to respond to a shocking request was taken as a signal that nothing happened
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) pushed further: “The president never should have cleared the room and he never should have asked you ... to let it go ... But I remain puzzled by your response ... You could have said, ‘Mr. President, this meeting is inappropriate.’”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) then put into place the final familiar piece of this narrative, suggesting that Comey should have quit if he thought Trump acted inappropriately — indeed, that a failure to quit was evidence of Trump’s innocence. Blunt said, “[Y]ou took as a direction from the president something you thought was serious and troublesome but continued to show up for work the next day?”
If someone abuses their workplace power over you, your only legitimate response is to leave your job. If you don’t, it didn’t happen — or you consented.
This questioning of Comey’s understandably confused and distressed reaction to a confusing and distressing series of events took up time that could have been spent on more substantive questions. (Why did Trump clear the room, if the conversation was innocuous?)
Naturally, it is not the duty of Republicans to accept every statement by Comey as the only reasonable version of events. Nor is it wrong to challenge his account. But the inability to recognize that, in that one-on-one dinner, President Trump wielded the power over Comey, and that this power dynamic might have shaped Comey’s response, suggests an all-too-familiar blind spot.
It had unpleasant echoes of many cases involving powerful men and less-powerful women. Seeing a man as powerful as James Comey face victim-blaming hurdles should perhaps make us all wrestle with just how daunting the challenge is for the average woman making a sexual harassment claim.
Corrine McConnaughy is associate professor of political science at George Washington University and author of The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment. Twitter: @cmMcConnaughy
The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org