What we saw Thursday, live from Washington, D.C., was not reality TV. It was not entertainment. It was history in the making.
As much of the nation tuned in, former FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee about his relationship with President Donald Trump. Comey spoke with the sincerity and certainty that comes when you’re under oath. The weight such an oath – with all its legal consequences – lends to Comey’s words should be apparent to everyone.
Any spin offered on what Comey said, including that coming from the Trump family, should be viewed in light of those consequences. Unless those trying to spin away Comey’s words are also willing to take an oath, their spin can be ignored.
The committee is pursuing whether President Trump directed Comey to shut down an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
It was clear, during the testimony, that even senators who normally defend Trump under any and all circumstances were hesitant to attack Comey. Those who did, often backed away after hearing his answers and learning how he operates.
It was fascinating to hear the former FBI director explain how he divulged certain information through a third party in the hope it might lead to a special prosecutor. It did. Asked why he didn’t just come forward, Comey compared reporters to “seagulls” (not exactly flattering, but perhaps accurate). The exchanged provided insight into his thinking and his capabilities as a political operative – something else the senators were forced to respect.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, among the first to question Comey, extracted the quote of the hearing: “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” Comey said of his meetings with Trump.
Feinstein also inquired why Comey didn’t immediately tell Trump it was wrong to ask about the Flynn investigation – which assumes Trump wouldn’t know something so obvious; as if Trump must be treated like an apprentice president.
Proving how difficult it is to stand up to power, even if you’re the 6-foot-8 director of the FBI, Comey replied that maybe if he had been stronger he would have spoken up, but he was too “stunned” by the exchange.
Thursday’s two-hour hearing produced other riveting moments and some headlines, though Comey’s seven-page written statement was released by the committee on Wednesday. Comey testified he wrote detailed memos of his meetings with Trump because he feared the president would lie. He accused the president of lying about him and the FBI to justify firing him. While Comey said Trump was not personally under scrutiny as part of the Russia probe, he said he believes Trump fired him to affect the investigation.
Considering the shifting explanations for the firing, divulged through presidential tweeting, we already know Comey is telling the truth.
Still, the White House issued a statement saying Trump doesn’t lie.
The former FBI chief also testified that Flynn was in legal jeopardy when Trump talked to him, but he wouldn’t speculate if that amounted to obstruction of justice. Whether Trump’s conduct rises to the level of an impeachable offense is a political question.
After Comey’s testimony, Trump’s private lawyer flatly denied the president asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, or to pledge loyalty. And Trump’s lawyer accused Comey of “unauthorized disclosure” of private communications with the president – though Trump’s own tweets on the topic appear to make it a moot point according to many legal scholars.
The Comey hearing was as enlightening as it was engrossing. But there is much more to learn before reaching conclusions. Regardless, it raised the prospect of a president willing to both lie and abuse his power.