Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey because of the investigation of Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, but on Thursday night he may have realized what a mistake he’d made. Comey didn’t provide damning new evidence on "Russiagate" in his public testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Thursday morning, but he portrayed Trump as a liar and a conniver who tried to shut down the investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Comey didn’t land a knockout punch, but he left Trump bruised and bleeding.
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Comey’s appearance at the Senate had been billed as the greatest show on earth, and in some ways it even lived up to the hype. There were no acrobatics or fireworks, no one broke down or was caught out lying, but Comey provided a persuasive and coherent testimony that crushed Trump’s already failing public image.
The ousted FBI director starred in an intelligent political drama, which may have disappointed "Scandal" fans but certainly pleased admirers of "The West Wing" or the Danish "Borgen." Old-timers compared it to the damning testimony given by White House Counsel John Dean in June 1973 at the height of the Watergate affair, from which then-President Richard Nixon never recovered.
It’s an uneven matchup any way you look at it. On the one hand, Comey is now a has-been whose future is behind him, while Trump remains the all-powerful U.S. president. On the other hand, Comey is an intelligent lawyer and coolheaded FBI operative brimming with self-confidence who swims in the Washington swamp like a fish in water. Trump, meanwhile, is an unruly and impulsive president whose self-confidence stands in inverse proportion to his qualifications, and who can’t keep his story straight from one moment to the next.
Trump’s lawyers tried to portray Comey’s testimony as wiping Trump’s slate squeaky clean, but they probably have it wrong: it muddied his prospects even more.
The forum in which Comey appeared also worked in his favor. The leaders of the intelligence committee – Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina and his deputy, Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia – have agreed to run a calm and respectable probe into the Russia allegations, and to keep the partisan grandstanding by committee members to a minimum. Democrats obviously tried to use Comey’s testimony to convict Trump, while Republicans were anxiously exploring escape routes for their president. But the generally calm atmosphere gave Comey three hours to methodically lay out his case against the president.
The Republicans tried to criticize Comey for his handling of the FBI probe of Hillary Clinton’s emails, but by doing so only added to his credibility. Democrats, after all, may view Comey today as an instrument of their redemption, but not long ago he was the villain responsible for their November downfall. All of this was apparently too much for veteran senator John McCain, who sadly got his investigations mixed up and chided Comey for prematurely exonerating Clinton in the Russiagate affair, in which she was not involved.
Comey portrayed Trump as a habitual liar – an observation that compelled him from the outset to keep a record of the three personal meetings and six phone conversations the two men had after Trump’s election. He described how Trump initially praised him and repeatedly implored him to stay on as head of the FBI, and how his attitude changed after he realized Comey would not pledge personal loyalty to him or accede to his request to “let go” of the Flynn investigation.
Comey explicitly said Trump lied about their meetings and their content, as well as who initiated them and, most injuriously, about the circumstances of Comey’s dismissal. Comey said these lies spurred him to give his memos of his meetings with Trump to a friend, who passed them onto the press, in the hope this would force the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel. Trump’s lawyers have now seized on this admission to accuse Comey of illegal leaks and of disloyalty to the president.
Comey was especially animated about the threat to U.S. democracy from Russian intervention. “They’re going after America,” he said, dismissing as “fake news” any effort to deny or downplay the Kremlin’s intervention. In doing so, he told the committee that Trump had never asked him about the essence of the Russian intervention or of the ways the FBI was fighting it. This may actually have been his most disturbing revelation.
Comey did not read out the written account of his opening statement, which was given to the media Wednesday night. Comey, who knows Washington like the palm of his hand, sought to control the agenda and to prevent the White House from trying to undermine his testimony in advance. Legal experts were already debating whether Comey’s account constituted obstruction of justice, but what is clear from his written memorandum is that the FBI director felt from the outset that Trump was a creep.
Throughout his disturbing White House conversations with Trump, Comey seemed to be thinking, to paraphrase Radiohead, “What the hell’s he doing here? He doesn’t belong here.” Small wonder that like Miss Universe contestants before him, Comey didn’t want to be left alone in a room with Trump, as he told Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
To a layman’s ears, it certainly sounds as if Trump was somewhere between asking and ordering Comey to stop an open investigation, without any connection to whether the evidence justified such a request. Given that the president is, in the final analysis, the FBI director’s boss, he may have leeway in instructing him about ongoing investigations, There’s an appropriate Jewish saying, of course: It may be kosher, but it certainly stinks to high heaven.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who continues to defend Trump despite being repeatedly and thoroughly humiliated by him, said the president was having “normal New York City conversation” with the FBI chief. Perhaps, but only if you include the kind of tone usually associated with the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, Lucchese or other Mafia families.
Trump’s demand for “loyalty” from an FBI chief whom he knows is investigating his campaign’s ties to Russia; his implied threats to Comey that, lacking such loyalty, his job might be on the line; his insistence that Comey “let go” of the Flynn investigation because he’s a “good guy”; and his demands that the FBI tell the public he is clean, even though that situation could change overnight – all of these were neither proper for a president who is being probed, nor were they “normal New York conversation.” They sounded more like lines taken from the script of a potential "Godfather IV," mixed in with "House of Cards," perhaps. Trump may have expected Comey to kneel down, kiss his ring and pledge omertà, the Cosa Nostra’s code of silence.
Comey devoted a surprising amount of attention to the infamous “Golden Shower” dossier compiled by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele. He describes the “personally sensitive information” about Trump as “salacious and unverified,” but notes it might be “potentially embarrassing” for the president. To quote Shakespeare, Comey “doth protest too much,” either because he believes the damning information about Trump is at least partially true or because he wants to make Trump squirm, just for the hell of it.
Trump’s lawyer was quick to announce that the president feels “completely and totally vindicated” by Comey’s statement and testimony. Given Trump’s inability to contend with any form of censure or criticism, that statement might factually be true. Comey may have wounded Trump grievously, but he did not supply a “smoking gun” that would make Trump’s impeachment inevitable. Comey is relying on his past mentor and ally, Robert Mueller – who was appointed special counsel – to fulfill the longtime slogan of the FBI that it “always gets its man.”